Female doctors and the physician shortage

Someone has gone and rained the facts down on what is generally considered a feel–good story in American medicine, the dramatic increase in female doctors in America.

In response to Dr. Herbert Parde’s “The Coming Doctor Shortage” article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Curtis Markel pointed out that there is a difference between the raw, gross number of physicians in America, and the effective number of practicing physicians.  Not only that, but he had the audacity to point out that roughly 50% of newly–minted American trained physicians are women, and that many of them do not practice full-time.

The nerve of that guy. I mean, how dare he bring facts into a discussion of physician manpower? This must be just another incidence of the male–dominated world of medicine cracking down on those female party-crashers. Except for the fact that, no, this really isn’t a case of that at all. Just an illumination of a significant part of a more general trend. When we look at the economics of physician resources the more important statistic is not the number of physicians working, but the number of physician–hours that are worked. Physicians newly minted in the United States in the last 20 years work fewer hours per week and annually than their predecessors, and “mommy–track” docs work even less.

That, my friends, is a fact–based reality of healthcare economics in the United States. The fact remains that Heinlein was right: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The facts do not care what you think. They do not they do not care how you feel about them. They do not go away and they do not change if you try to change the topic or bury them with obfuscation. Torn between self–righteousness (I’m staying home for my children) and righteous indignation (I work HARD), the mommy-track docs have fired back.

Unfortunately, their return fire has been little but emotion-loaded pellets, rather than fact–filled ordinance. An ER physician talks about choosing to work fewer shifts in order to tend to her family, or an ailing parent, or even to avoid “burnout,” and conflates the effects of these personal choices with her feelings about the effects of inequities between the compensation for so–called cognitive versus procedural specialties. Another talks about wanting to work part time with the thought that this will make her a more effective doctor. Still others try to shift the conversation from the “mommy–track” to general lifestyle considerations: I wish to “paint, or cycle, or just read.” All well and good, of course, but all also well beside the point. The fact remains that women physicians tend to work fewer hours than their male colleagues, those who have children take long stretches of time away from practicing medicine to do so, and both men and women recently trained tend to work measurably fewer hours than their predecessors did and do.

Sorry. You can’t have it all. Thinking that you can is a fantasy; it’s just not consistent with a fact–based reality. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In medicine or anywhere else.

Please don’t get me wrong. I personally find absolutely nothing inherently wrong with working fewer hours or taking time out to have children. Back in the day there was often a terrible price to be paid because of the traditional work ethic of the American (mostly male) physician. The landscape is littered with the carcasses of medical marriages that didn’t survive this “profession first” rule. Substance abuse was rampant among these physicians, and the physician suicide rate was (and is) a multiple of the general population’s. Younger physicians, mommy–track and otherwise, are certainly onto something. The life balance that is so important to them is healthier in almost all respects, at least as far as the physicians themselves go. But in terms of our health care system as a whole? Nope. The facts say we either need more doctors, or doctors need to work more hours. To say that you, the physician, are making these choices for anything other than lifestyle reasons, to blame some reimbursement inequity or other external factor is disingenuous at best.  My mother used to call it “the consequences of your decisions”, but I prefer Heinlein.

While there are some medical specialties that are very lucrative (neurosurgery, gastroenterology), the income that physicians take-home is generally reflective of how hard they work. How many hours per week they to spend doing clinical work. How much they actually do in each of those hours. General surgeons tend to make more money then family practitioners,  not so much because they get paid all that very much for any individual thing they do, but because they tend to work lots of hours, and they tend to do lots of work in each one of those hours. Nights, weekends, dinnertime, and long after Conan has called it a night, general surgeons are at work because the work needs to be done. The vast majority of primary care physicians work 40 hour weeks, hours that look more like the proverbial banker’s day than the surgeon’s. Nothing wrong with that, and neither is this always the case. I have a friend who is a very successful, family practitioner who is blessed and cursed with both ADD and insomnia. I think he works more than anyone I know, doctor or otherwise, and his income is consequently more like that of a general surgeon.

Perhaps an illuminating example would be the decision I made approximately five years ago to totally change the way I practice my specialty. Suffering from a severe case of professional and business dissatisfaction, I left an extremely successful practice (a practice that remains extremely successful in my absence) and starteda very different type of eye care practice. (As an aside, when they finally got around to replacing me, it took two 30–something year-old physicians to do so.) Here, I see many fewer patients each day, and consequently have a dramatically lower income. When presented with the Zen–like question “do you wish to be wealthy or happy” I chose happy. The decision has made me quite “unwealthy”, but I really am quite happy.

That is the fact–based reality of physician economics, my  little micro–economic example to explain the macro–economic effects of physician–hours versus physician numbers. There’s no one to blame. No government conspiracy. No specialty vs. primary care inequity. I am the sole bread–winner in a home with a “mommy–track” Mom. There are more eye doctors where I live because some of the eye doctors who are already here, mommy–track or otherwise, are now working less.

Are mommy–track docs the sole problem why we face a pending physician shortage in the United States? Of course not. We have a decades–long history of new physicians working fewer hours than their predecessors, a relatively static number of new physicians being trained, and an ever–expanding population of patients who need the care of these physicians. No matter how they might feel about it, and no matter how they might feel about having it pointed out, the fact remains that, on average, newly–minted doctors work fewer hours than their predecessors, and mommy–track docs, on average, work fewer hours than their peers. Wanna stay home with your kids? Cool. 12 weeks to bond with the new baby? Sure, who wouldn’t want that. Just “man up” and face the facts–you can’t have it all. Nobody can. Be a grown up and accept the consequences of the choices that you have made, and accept this gracefully when someone else points that out in the Wall Street Journal or elsewhere.

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody, somewhere, always pays.

Darrell White is an ophthalmologist who blogs at Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind.

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