There is no question that female oncologists are bearing the brunt, both at work and at home, contended Dr. Taniguchi. “Absolutely. I have seen this first-hand,” he said.
“If it was difficult for women, underrepresented minorities, and junior faculty to find a voice in the room prepandemic, I think it can be harder in the times of virtual meetings when it is difficult to engage audiences,” he said.
Dr. Holstein said she is lucky to be well-supported at her institution, with both a female chief of hematology/oncology and a female chair of internal medicine, but still, she worries about the long-term consequences of the pandemic on the gender landscape of medicine.
“If you’re having to put aside research projects because you have extra responsibilities – again because women just tend to have a lot of other things going on – that might not be a big deal for 3 months, 6 months, but this is going to be a year or 2 years before ‘normal’ comes back,” she says. “One to two years of underpublishing or not getting the grants could be career killers for women in academic oncology.”
Cancer COVID-19 combo
As Dr. Wildes completed her final weeks of seeing cancer patients, she received an outpouring of support, which she says convinced her of the shared experience of all doctors, and especially female doctors, during the pandemic. But even more specifically, she feels that she has tapped into the unique burden shouldered by oncologists during this time.
“It’s intimidating being an oncologist; we are literally giving people poison for a living. Then throw into it a pandemic where early in March we had so little data. I was helping my patients make decisions about their cancer care based on a case series of four patients in China. The burden of those conversations is something I never want to have to live through again,” she said.
“Oncology is a particularly intense subspecialty within medicine,” agreed Dr. Subbiah. “The people we care for have received a life-altering and potentially life-limiting diagnosis. Coupled with that, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented cloud of uncertainty ... Whether the patients can see it overtly or not, oncologists carry the weight of this worry with them for not just one but all of their patients.”
Dr. Wildes said she plans to return to academic medicine and clinical care “in time,” but for now, the gap that she and others like her leave is troubling to those who have stayed on.
“We need these women in medicine,” said Dr. Holstein. “We have data suggesting that women take more time with their patients than men, that patient outcomes are better if they have a female physician. But also for the generations coming up, we need the mid-career and senior women to be in place to mentor and guide and make sure we continue to increase women in leadership.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.