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.