First: Do No Harm…Even To Colleagues?

Like many others I recently read a New York Times Op Ed piece entitled “Don’t Quit This Day Job,” written by Dr. Karen Sibert and I was immediately taken aback by what she had to say. I wanted to write this several days ago, but as anyone who has spent half a second perusing my blog or Twitter knows, I’ve been severely busy losing my mind for the past several weeks.

The first thing that struck me about this piece was not that she was stating her opinion, but that she chose to take the route of justifying her opinion by saying that medical education was “subsidized” by the government and women working part-time were the reason there was a shortage of physicians. She took two hugely complicated and multi-faceted issues, chiseled them into pawns that worked for her argument and held them up as shields for her below-the-belt shot at other women, all the while ensuring she herself came off as the martyr.

What I don’t understand is where she gets her basis for blaming the physician shortage, a crisis we can all agree did not start yesterday, on women working part time. She states that the part-time work force has grown 63% since 2003...two-thousand-three
…meaning, people started going part-time in large quantities well after we had identified that there would be a primary care physician shortage. There is so much more to this problem – to take a national platform like the New York Times and use it to place the blame for such a massive, cumulative problem on women working part-time is wholly and incredulously irresponsible.

It is ironic she chose to point her finger only at part-time women physicians with children, as if there are no men who are part time for their kids or no people of either sex who are part-time for other reasons (like research, academia, continuing education, volunteering, writing books or NYT Op Ed articles scaring females out of medicine, etc.).

Her choice to blame part-time women in particular makes it obvious that this article is less about the physician shortage or lack of healthcare and more about pointing her “you are weak” finger of medicine at the new generation of physicians and standing up on a pedestal to wave her holierthanthou

As a current female medical student I am well aware that medicine is a field in which it will be difficult to find a work-life balance. Coming into this we are not jaded to the fact that work-life balance is hard, nor are we ignorant to the fact that the generations of physicians ahead of us view medicine differently than we do. Dr. Sibert brings up some great points in her piece, but spends most of her time blaming this or that on other people.

Saying it is hard to find life balance is not the same as placing a blanket statement over women that they should not go into medicine if they are not going to work full-time. For one, it’s irrational – many medical students start medical school unmarried and not considering children…those people have no idea where life will take them in the next 10 or 15 years – life can change drastically in that time. Dr. Sibert judged an entire group of women whose lives have not been as easy as hers – women who went to medical school and decided they wanted kids but didn’t have the help she obviously had. She chose to use her platform as a place to pin these women as being less strong or less dedicated than she, while overlooking that you can be dedicated to medicine and still put your family first.

What is obvious in her writing is that Dr. Sibert either had the luxury of a nanny to raise her kids or had a husband and family who could pick up the slack when she was working “full-time.” It’s easy to judge from that side, when you’ve never lived 400 miles away from your entire family, been a primary care physician who didn’t make enough money to hire a full-time nanny, found yourself suddenly a single mother or the parent of a child with a disability requiring full-time assistance…or simply decided your family wasn’t going to be put on the back burner.

It was irresponsible and unfortunate for her to choose to address a subject warranting so much discussion by placing the blame of the current physician shortage on women who work part-time. Where she could’ve stimulated productive conversation, she instead shattered alliances and discouraged female physicians. Her words are absolutely and incredulously wrong and her assumption that these women are less dedicated to their profession is blatantly out of line. The blame for the physician shortage doesn’t go to part-time women, it goes to a culmination of events that have played out beginning many years ago and including, but not limited to, decisions made by politicians.

It is commendable, from a professional perspective, that Dr. Sibert has chosen to work full-time. However, it is also commendable from a parenting perspective those that have sacrificed themselves to do what they felt is right for their children. These are not situations requiring blame or shame, they are choices. Dr. Sibert is blessed to have a job she loves and a family with enough support that she can work full-time in that field. Many of the “part-time” women she is referring to still work 40 hours/week…an amount considered full-time by most all standards. They are doing the best they can – for their patients, their family and their colleagues – they don’t deserve the blame given.

If nothing else Dr. Sibert has done a supreme job of building a huge wall between her generation of physicians and my generation of physicians when we need their mentoring and guidance the most. We aren’t here to be judged, we’re here to live our lives and learn how to be the best doctors we can. From there, we will make the best decisions we can to ensure we stay good physicians by maintaining not only our skills, but our personal mental and physical health…even if that means less hours per week than Dr. Sibert. It saddens me that she has discouraged potentially great future female physicians from choosing medicine as a career path and, frankly, I expect more out of her as a woman, a mother, a mentor and, mostly, as a colleague.

Images Courtesy of Sura Nualpradid.

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3 Comments + Add Comment

  • Absolutely and 100% agreed. You hit the nail right on the spot. And I am SO glad to see that so many people, including physicians AND the general population, have stood up against her point of view.

    I was personally infuriated by her comments when I first read the Op-Ed. And I still am.

    I case you haven't heard (but I'm sure you have!), she was interviewed, along with Dr. Michelle Au of the underwear drawer and "This Won't Hurt A Bit" and two other physicians, in NPR's Tell Me More.

  • Hi Danielle

    I too was infuriated by Karen's comments for a few days! And then reminded myself of the beauty of life is that we all get to make choices.

    You make good points.

    As I had shared on the original piece, I have worked full time with kids, 3/4 time with kids (temporarily as a single mom when my husband was abroad for 8 mos!) and have taken time off. Soon I will be part time with kids.

    Many of my former patients email to ask when I am coming back. if you asked them, none of their healthcare suffered because I worked part time.

    Karen's way of thinking is old school and not too different from the thinking that persists in medical traing: "if I had to do it than they have to do it." : long hours of training, verbal abuse that occurs in med school and residency etc etc. We have to be forward thinking and progressive as it is the 21st century!

    Her quote who will care for the patients? My answer: It is a collaborative effort: doctors, nurses etc. Not a one man show.

    Breath now that your boards are done!

    Rajka Milanovic Galbraith M.D.

  • Part-time male surgeon here.

    Excellent observation that she must have had help raising her kids.

    I agree, the simplicity of her argument was shocking.

    My response blog post here: http://porteronsurg.blogspot.com/2011/06/part-time-doctor.html

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About The Author

I'm an ObGyn. I started this blog as a medical student (some would call that doctor school) and now I'm working as an Ob/Gyn, which is seriously the coolest job ever. I'm a twin mom and recently added a baby brudder to the mix. My life story through November 2010 can be viewed here. The events in the many years following can be summed up as wedding bells, books, exams, babies, and doctoring. I started this blog in hopes of landing a role in a Lifetime movie so I could quit medicine and move to Hollywood, but that hasn't happened...so if you wouldn't take medical advice from Angelina Jolie, you shouldn't take it from me. I may not even be a real person. In fact, I'm probably a spambot. Or possibly a 15 yo boy blogging from a dingy basement. If you're really interested you can read more about me here. If you have any questions or want to guest post contact me.

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