Triple whammy: Physician, mother, caregiver

Young female doctor sitting at desk in front of computer covering face with hand in frustration
Caring for their patients and kids as well as others takes a toll on women physicians. (Getty Images/PRImageFactory)

You might call it the “triple whammy” for physicians.

It’s tough enough being a physician and a mother, but imagine taking on the additional responsibility of caring for a person with a serious health problem, long-term illness or disability.

Not surprisingly, the result for physician mothers in the U.S. who care for seriously ill children, spouses, parents or others is significantly higher rates of mood or anxiety disorders and burnout when compared to other physician moms, according to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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Researchers based at the University of California, San Francisco, surveyed members of the Physician Moms Group, an online community group. Of 5,613 respondents, 918, or 16.4%, said they not only take care of their children and patients, but also provide regular care or assistance to a friend or family member with a serious health problem, long-term illness or disability.

RELATED: Doctors who are mothers face ‘insidious, persistent’ discrimination, study finds

Researchers wanted to determine if those additional caregiving responsibilities have consequences for the woman’s health, well-being and career longevity.

While rates of mood or anxiety disorders and burnout were higher, the frequency of career satisfaction was similar in physicians with and without additional caregiving responsibilities. Those with additional caregiving responsibilities were also not more apt to engage in risky drinking or substance abuse.

RELATED: Physician moms say they face workplace discrimination

Many of those doctors are caught in the so-called sandwich generation, in which they are responsible for bringing up their own children and caring for their aging parents. Among those with additional caregiving responsibilities, almost half (48.3%) report caring for ill parents. Another 16.9% reported caring for children or infants, 7.7% caring for partners and 28.6% caring for other relatives. Some 153 respondents, or 16.7%, care for more than one person.

Previous studies have focused on the high risk women physicians face in terms of work-family conflicts. Studies and supportive efforts have focused on the need for childbearing leave, accommodating breastfeeding mothers and child rearing.

One 2018 study reported “insidious, persistent and sometimes blatant” discrimination experienced by female physicians based specifically on their status as mothers. That study called for changes that address pregnancy, parental leave and childcare to mitigate the impacts of maternal discrimination in medicine.

Given the latest research on those who also have additional caregiving responsibilities, healthcare systems should develop new approaches to identify and address their needs to reduce burnout and improve workforce retention, the researchers said.

That becomes crucial given the predicted shortage of physicians and since the majority of medical students are now women and it is estimated that around 80% of female physicians are or will become mothers.

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