Part time medicine and birth of the new normal

One of the most common stressors for physicians is the sheer toxicity of what are considered full time hours. While the rest of the world considers full time to be 40 hours a week, we all know a full time doc starts at 80 plus, if you include all the hours you must be available on call.

In physician surveys, schedule flexibility and the ability to function as a part time doctor are always sited as highly desired burnout prevention measures. However, until recently, the ability to actually be a part time doctor in a group of full-timers was frowned upon and maligned, not to mention the fact that part time slots used to be hard to find. Times are changing.

The 2011 Physician Retention Survey by the American Medical Group Association (AMGA) and Cejka Search is showing a breakthrough in the availability of part time work for doctors. The numbers are so impressive, I believe we are witnessing a change in the definition of the successful physician. Medicine appears to be accepting part time to be a legitimate practice option in critical mass. The 2011 survey covered 14,366 physicians in 80 practices, which had from three to more than 500 doctors each.

The survey shows in just the last six years,

  • Part time male doctors tripled
  • Female doctors working part time increased by 50%

I believe these statistics herald the emergence of a new normal in the definition of what it means to be a successful physician. This will have a positive effect on the health of thousands of doctors in the years ahead.

Here are the actual numbers from the survey:

  • 22% of male doctors worked part time in 2011, up from 7% in 2005
  • 44% of female doctors worked part time in 2011, up from 29% in 2005

Two demographic forces are driving this part time doctor trend – and I suspect a third is working in the background as well.

1. More women physicians in the workplace. The balancing of the genders in our profession has caused a sea change in the availability of less than full time employment. Women have a healthier perspective on the stress of full time work and they graduate residency in the prime years to start a family. These two trends lead to an instant increase in the demand for part time work. If you want women physicians on staff you simply must offer part time options.

2. An aging population of men doctors. These men are looking to scale back their practice to be a part time doctor rather than retire. The economic crash of the last several years has definitely added to this slow down in physician retirements.

3. Here is the hidden factor I think is also in play. I will call it the emergence of the “new normal.” Back in the day when women first started to show up in medicine and began to legitimately request a part time option for their participation, we all remember the grumbling from the old guard.

“Why do we even let ‘em into medical school in the first place.”

“We don’t hire women here because they go part time sooner or later.”

If the truth be told, I still see this grumbling from time to time in doctor-only websites where the MD can remain anonymous.

That was the “old normal.” Work like a dog, until you die — full time or nuthin’ — if you can’t hack it you simply weren’t tough enough and didn’t deserve it.

Now our doctor sisters are creating this new normal, where it is all of a sudden ok to be a part time doctor, to put your family first for a while, to have a life. Amazing!

So with the new normal of the part time doctor option becoming just plain normal, both women and men can go part time to raise a family, as alternative to retirement, or in any other situation where a lower work load would support a higher quality of life.

This new normal can be a part time doctor — balanced and healthy and empathetic — everything you might have imagined your life could be when you made the decision to become a doctor in the first place.

Makes total sense, and I welcome everyone to define your own new normal.

One of the keys to this whole cascade is the ability for everyone to be ok with you being a member of your medical group as a part time physician.

And it looks like the new normal is reaching critical mass.

The same survey showed 75% of groups in 2011 offered a four-day workweek, and 30% allowed job-sharing.

We have a ways to go and these percentages are a welcome change from not that many years ago. I honestly think we are witnessing the birth of a new normal.

Is a new normal with regards to a doctor’s workload emerging? If you work part time, how has that help your quality of life as a modern physician?

Dike Drummond is a family physician and provides burnout prevention and treatment services for healthcare professionals at his site, The Happy MD.

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