Are more female physicians leaving medicine as pandemic surges?


Firm numbers are hard to come by, said Julie Silver, MD , associate professor, associate chair, and director of cancer rehabilitation in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, Boston, and an expert in gender equity in medicine. But she sees some troubling trends.

“There are many indications that women are leaving medicine in disproportionately high numbers,” Dr. Silver said in an interview. “A lack of fair pay and promotion opportunities that were present before COVID-19 are now combined with a host of pandemic-related challenges.”

A survey of 1,809 women conducted in mid-April with the Physician Moms Facebook Group and accepted for online publication by the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 41% scored over the cutoff points for moderate or severe anxiety, with 46% meeting these criteria among front-line workers.

“It’s really important for society to recognize the extraordinary impact this pandemic is having on physician mothers, as there will be profound ripple effects on the ability of this key segment of the health care workforce to serve others if we do not address this problem urgently,” co-senior author Reshma Jagsi, MD , DPhil, a radiation oncologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in an interview.

Women weighed in on Twitter, in response to Dr. Silver’s tweet to #WomenInMedicine: “If you are thinking of leaving #medicine & need a reason to stay: we value you & need you.”

In reply, Emmy Betz, MD, MPH, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora, said via Twitter, “I’ve had lots of conversations with women considering leaving medicine.”

“I have thought about leaving many times. I love what I do, but medicine can be an unkind world at times,” responded Valerie Fitzhugh MD, associate professor and pathologist at New Jersey Medical School, Newark.

“Too late. Left at the end of July and it was the best decision ever,” wrote Michelle Gordon, DO, who was previously a board-certified general surgeon at Northern Westchester Surgical Associates in Putnam Valley, N.Y.

Prepandemic disparities accentuated

The pandemic “has merely accentuated – or made more apparent – some of the longstanding issues and struggles of women in oncology, women in medicine, women in academia,” said Sarah Holstein, MD, PhD , another mid-career oncologist and associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha.

“There are disparities in first-author/last-author publications, disparities in being asked to give speaking engagements, disparities in leadership,” Dr. Holstein said in an interview. “And then ... put on top of that the various surges with the pandemic where you are being asked to do clinical responsibilities you don’t normally do, perhaps some things you haven’t done since your training 10 or 20 years ago.”

This is backed up with data: There is already a “robust” body of prepandemic literature demonstrating pay gaps for female physicians and scientists, noted Dr. Silver, who founded the Her Time Is Now campaign for gender equity in medicine and runs a women’s leadership course at Harvard.

In addition, female physicians are more likely to be involved in “nonpromotable” work, group projects and educator roles that are often underappreciated and undercompensated, she said.


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