Lifestyle matters for specialties that want to survive

Medical students today consider lifestyle an essential criteria when choosing a specialty.

It’s become a cliche that most are looking towards the ROAD (radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and dermatology) to happiness.

There’s been some recent media attention at how women are lured to specialties that offer a greater balance between their family lifestyle and professional demands.

Claudia Golden, a Harvard economics professor, recently noted that,

high-paying careers that offer more help in balancing work and family are the ones that end up luring the largest numbers of women. Surprisingly, colon and rectal surgery is one of these, because of rapid growth in routine colonoscopies that can be scheduled in advance, giving doctors control over their time. Goldin says 31% of colon and rectal surgeons under 35 years of age were female in 2007, compared with only 3% of those ages 55 to 64, and 12% of those ages 45 to 54, reflecting the fact that younger women are flocking to the field.

Of course, what’s not said is the grueling training that it takes to become a colorectal surgeon — but the numbers cited above do not lie. The new generation of doctors — both men and women — want greater control of their time. That means more shift-work and a predictable call schedule.

The term for this, as Dr. Golden notes, is “career cost to family.” Other specialties that have a low career cost to family include pediatrics, dermatology and veterinary medicine.

Professions that emphasize a better family balance will thrive going forward. Those that don’t, such as general surgery and obstetrics for instance, are likely to find it more difficult to attract the applicants they once did.

Physicians now are considering new criteria that ensures a better balance when considering a job:

Are people in the field being hit with big and lasting pay penalties for taking time off for family, or for working part-time? Or is the relationship between work performed and pay fairly “linear”–that is, people are paid commensurate with the number of hours worked or patients or clients served? Working parents pay a high career cost in career fields where pay criteria tend to be more vague and subjective, such as status within an organization.

And you know what? They should. Doctors have been exposed to burnout from long hours and an environment that discourages work-life balance for far too long. And patients are the one bearing much of that brunt, with studies correlating burnt out doctors with poorer care.

Every specialty should take lifestyle into account going forward, whether they like it or not. Failing to do so will only repel them from the best applicants.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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