It’s hard to be a physician and a mother

Cristina Ferrario

The emotional support from colleagues is there, but many hurdles are present for physician mothers, making the maternity/family leave a big challenge for several women. “Physicians taking maternity leave experience unique challenges that require creative solutions, the seeds of which can be found in the lived experiences of women in medicine captured in the present study” Shannon B. Juengst, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and co-authors wrote in a paper recently published in JAMA Network Open.

For this cross-sectional US nationwide study, a survey was developed using a modified Delphi process to characterize the experience of family leave and return-to-work of physician mothers across all disciplines and all levels of training, with the final aim of identifying best practices for supporting them throughout their careers. The survey was administered electronically and complete surveys were available for 844 women from 19 subspecialty groups, mean age 35.8, with 97.9% currently practicing and 16.4% in a residency program. “The survey covered both negative and positive experiences of physician mothers for each child they conceived or adopted after medical school” authors pointed out.

Almost two-thirds of the participants (73.3%) felt that leave time – most commonly 5 to 12 weeks, often not paid – was insufficient, and cited more leave as the most important support they need. A 4 to 6 months period was identified as ideal leave time. Lack of facilities for breast pumping (range, 15.4% for the third child to 32.2% for the first child) and time for breast pumping (range, 34.6% for the third child to 48.2% for the first child) were most frequently reported as negative experiences when returning to work. Moreover, difficulty in obtaining childcare (35.3% for the first child) and discrimination (18.0%) were also mentioned. As reported in the paper, the most common positive experience was emotional support (59.7%), primarily from colleagues.

Researchers noted that while women represent an increasing proportion of practicing physicians and extended leave presents unique challenges for both institutions and individuals, all the challenges emerged from the survey should be addressed properly. “Our study captures these lived experiences, creating an opportunity to identify both problems and effective strategies associated with maternity/family leave and return to work for physician parents” authors concluded.

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