Doctors need to place their families first

Several years ago I wrote an article for physicians on the topic of balance, and one of the suggestions was to place family first.  There are two stories that I have learned since the publication of that article that I would like to pass along.

Balance in a doctor’s life is best achieved if there is balance between family and work.  One of the best suggestions is to place family first.  When your family is first, you are not distracted at work worrying about something at home and have the ability to focus on your work and caring for patients.

It was the August 31, 2005 and Tom Brokaw and  had retired a few months earlier as anchor of the NBC Nightly News program which he held for 22 years.   He was on his ranch in Montana when he received a call from the producer at NBC asking him to take a special assignment and cover the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The assignment would require Mr. Brokaw to come immediately to New Orleans.  Mr. Brokaw said that he would like one evening to think over the request and would decide by early morning.  After the phone call, he was saying good night to his granddaughter who was visiting from the east and she asked her grandpa if he would go horseback riding in the morning.  That request by his granddaughter made the decision easy for Tom Brokaw.  He called NBC and politely turned down the invitation to go to New Orleans to cover the recovery from the hurricane.

A more current story of balance involves golfer, Hunter Mahan.  He was playing in the 2013 Canadian Open and was leading the filed by two strokes half way through the 72 hole tournament.  He received a call that his wife was going into labor with their first child.  Mr. Mahan dropped out of the tournament, with a first place prize of $1m, and immediately left for Dallas, Texas where he was able to be present for the birth of his baby daughter.

These are two examples of professionals who place their family first.  The opportunity to go horseback riding with a grandchild may never come again.  Certainly there certainly will be stories and disasters in the future that Mr. Brokaw will be able to cover.

The same with Mr. Mahan: there will always be another opportunity to play golf in a tournament worth as much or more than the Canadian open, but the opportunity to be there for the birth of your first child is once in a lifetime.

Both men made the right decision.  Both men have set an example for physicians.  Of course, we must provide medical care in an emergency for a patient.  But we can say no to participating in committees, conferences where are our participation is not necessary, speaking engagements that can be done by someone else, and other detractors that take us off focus and rob us of our time with our families.

Rabbi Harold Kushner said it so well in his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, “I never met a man (doctor*) on his/her death bed who said ‘I wish I would have spent one more day at the office (or seen one more patient*).’”

* Italicized additions are my own.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Guest

    I feel so fortunate to have my family. While medicine is interesting and rewarding it gets to a point where the stress becomes overwhelming. I go home, sit on the floor and color with my kids.

    Thanks for sharing this article.


    I am an MD, with a toddler and a second on the way. I love my job but I am always a mom first.
    Sadly, I have had a few (rare, thankfully) patients who have not been understanding. When I have cancelled clinic to rush my son to the ED twice ( accident needing stitches and high fever with rash) I had a patient each time complain and say me having a family emergency “wasn’t acceptable.” I guess they would have preferred a doctor who would let her own kid be scarred or dead in order to keep working I suppose….. Fortunately the rest were very understanding and gave wonderful wishes for his recovery, which were greatly appreciated.

    • FEDUP MD

      To add, these were all routine follow up nonurgent patients who were offered an appointment rescheduled with me within 2 days. Nobody abandoned in the throes of an emergency.

      • Guest

        What is your specialty? And why did you choose your handle name? What else are you fed up about? I’m a physician and a mom too – I’m sorry you received grief when having to deal with an emergency with your child. I often feel scorn when I choose my family over taking on more work.

        • FEDUP MD

          I am a pediatric subspecialist (non surgical). I absolutely love my job but am so sick of insurance companies piling on excessive paperwork which in no way benefits, and often delays, patient care. I actually got a peer to peer request a while back for an MRI of the head of a patient with a history of brain tumor (remission) with new neurological symptoms. They denied it as “not necessary.” My third grade educated grandmother could have told them it was necessary.

          I can’t even imagine wha it must be like for PCPs. Ugh.

          Working as a pediatric specialist, I am very blessed that my colleagues are very understanding. Some also work part-time and all plan their schedules around their kids. No one thinks it’s weird when the older guy takes Fridays off in season to see his kid play football.

          • Richard Willner

            Dear FEDUP MD,
            The sad reality is that certain patients feel entitled to “report” you to the State Medical Board for anything that they do not like. What they do not know is that the Board takes these complaints very seriously and in the case of one Medical Board, there is a high chance of it becoming a formal disciplinary matter.

            Richard Willner
            The Center for Peer Review Justice

    • azmd

      Dr. Baum’s sentiments notwithstanding, the fact is that medical culture frowns on physicians not putting their patients interests before their own. This is a core feature of medical professionalism. Most physicians are able to make those sacrifices very willingly, but it gets tricky when your patients’ needs are in conflict with your children’s needs.

      I found it interesting that neither of the examples that Dr. Baum cites involve a physician. Our professional culture, by necessity, is much different than that of a golf professional.

    • Tiffany

      I will be starting med school when I’m 29, and it makes me so nervous as a female. Everyone always asks “how will you ever have a family or a life?” since I will be starting “so late in the game”. Your post made me feel hopeful and it is nice to hear about female physicians who balance their lives and are proud of their commitment to their family in addition to their career. Thank you for the inspiration. As the daughter of parents who were always working, I think I can say your son will appreciate you making the choices to be with him, and will be thankful to have the memories of a parent present (especially the comfort of a mother).

      • Guest

        Congratulations Tiffany! Please be aware though most of us female physicians have delayed childbearing for our career, and some of us have not been so lucky (numerous failed IVF attempts). Nearly every mom in my peer group has used assisted reproduction, often at tremendous expense. It’s a tough choice that really doesn’t get easier. There’s still a lot of pushback against choosing kids and family over taking extra call, working your “fair share.”

    • querywoman

      I think you have some exceptionally selfish patients. A doctor is a mortal human, like the rest of us!
      You could have had a mild heart attack or stroke or some other whatever problem on the way in.
      A parent is morally and LEGALLY responsible to put his or he child first.

  • Anthony D

    “Doctors need to place their families first”

    With 18-40 million new patients coming soon and a physician shortage across the board of all specialties happening sooner then expected. Is it theoretically possible to have a balance lifestyle now more then ever in healthcare??

  • kjindal

    As is clear from the “down” votes here, we are dealing with a very entitled population. Family is absolutely first. And for those that don’t accept that, they should find “” just fine.

    • Guest

      My thought was that it is not patients down voting the comments but other physicians. Putting lifestyle first goes against everything older physicians were trained to believe. They are sickened by how “lazy” this new generation of physicians are for daring to seek work/life balance, especially women.

  • drjoekosterich

    in a plane they tell you if oxygen is needed to fit your own mask before assisting others. Not to be “selfish” but because you cannot help other people if you are struggling yourself. Same applies in medicine. If doctors are not caring for themselves(and family) how can they care for others?

  • Robert Luedecke

    There is a difference between not taking care of a patient with an acute need and arranging your life so your patients are well cared for and you do not neglect your family. The first I would heartily condemn and the second I would heartily recommend. It is not always easy for us over achievers, but is definitely the right thing to put family first!

Most Popular