The new trend in medicine isn’t some experimental drug or elaborate surgery: It’s doctors who work part-time. A new survey finds that twice as many female doctors as male doctors work less than full-time: 44% of women, compared to 22% of men. And both numbers have risen dramatically in recent years. Who’s driving the change? Old men and young women. Are they a drag on the system, as some argue, or are they leading the way to a more humane medical system?
As American Medical News reports, back in 2005 just 7% of men and 29% of women physicians worked less than-full time. Now, more and more doctors are seeing the benefits of not working insane hours. For those numbers to rise so quickly, something big must be happening. Experts say it’s two groups of the fastest-growing groups of doctors that are making it happen: Women at the beginning or middle of their careers, and men near the end of theirs. (The survey is from Cejka Search and the American Medical Group Association.)
The number of doctors overall has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. The average age of male doctors has been getting higher, while the average age of female doctors has been dropping. Women now make up about half of all medical school graduates. Both these groups — older men and younger women — have familiar reasons to want to work part-time: Women want to have time with their families, and men want to hold onto their careers past traditional retirement age, but still be able to relax and travel. “It’s the best thing I didn’t retire,” one older male doctor told the website. “I would have gone crazy.”
It sounds like great news for everyone: Doctors get to do their jobs in ways that work for them. They avoid burnout, and get to spend time with their families without dropping out of the workforce completely. This clearly makes medicine a more friendly field for young women.
But the trend toward part-time doctoring has its critics. Last year, anesthesiologist Karen Sibert argued in the New York Times that doctors have a responsibility to work full-time — essentially, that slacker women doctors were a drag on the system and a danger to their patients. In a genuinely thought-provoking op-ed, she wrote:
This may seem like a personal decision, but it has serious consequences for patients and the public.
Medical education is supported by federal and state tax money both at the university level — student tuition doesn’t come close to covering the schools’ costs — and at the teaching hospitals where residents are trained. So if doctors aren’t making full use of their training, taxpayers are losing their investment. With a growing shortage of doctors in America, we can no longer afford to continue training doctors who don’t spend their careers in the full-time practice of medicine.
It isn’t fashionable (and certainly isn’t politically correct) to criticize “work-life balance” or part-time employment options. How can anyone deny people the right to change their minds about a career path and choose to spend more time with their families? I have great respect for stay-at-home parents, and I think it’s fine if journalists or chefs or lawyers choose to work part time or quit their jobs altogether. But it’s different for doctors. Someone needs to take care of the patients.
What do you think? Are women doctors betraying the public trust, not to mention their paychecks? Or are we moving toward a more evolved vision of the workplace, one in which working hard even in the most elevated professions is compatible with having a full family life, too?