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Will Healthcare Reform Discussions Include Medical Education And Lifestyle Concerns? It should!

With health care reform being the talk of the week – a top priority for President Obama and for the AMA, who wants to be sure that America’s physicians are not just talked about in the reform process but included – I can’t help but wonder if the entire system will be reevaluated or if we will end up with just another band aid.

What worries me is that it’s not just the practical end of medicine that is broken. It is not just the billing end that is unhealthy. It’s not just the reimbursement and billing end that is broken. The overall culture of how we practice medicine is broken as well as the educational system in which and through which our next generation of physicians are being trained.

In this Spring’s issue of the Tufts University Medical School Alumni Magazine, my medical school Alma Mater, resident life style issues were at the core of their headline article. Reading the article, Pressure Drop, by Susan Clinton Martin, M.D., M.P.H, ’04, a pediatrics resident, I was at times propelled back in time to my pediatrics residency at the same institution in the early 1990’s have discussions with my adviser and residency director about whether I wanted to go part time. As I was in my junior year of my pediatrics’ residency and expecting my first child, this was not an easy decision to make and I had seen mixed results with other residents who had attempted this path before me.

In the end, I opted to not go part-time and for the reasons stated in the article for most residents not opting for this path:

1. longer length of overall residency
2. decreased pay and benefits (not ideal with a baby at home!)
3. resentment of colleagues for fear of extra work on their plates
4. lack of support of the program

The honest truth is all of these issues were at play back in the 90’s with me and my colleagues and still exist today. I opted to just forge ahead and deal with having a baby and being a full time resident. I don’t regret that decision. I had the support of some attending physicians and colleagues, friends, my husband and a wonderful nanny who a PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) Attending introduced me to. It wasn’t easy but is there ever a great time to have a baby in the medical profession? Let’s be honest – residency is one of the most challenging times for a physician and adding any stress to the plate makes it worse.

Balancing work and family is never easy for any career but particularly challenging as a doctor and incredibly challenging as a resident physician where you don’t control your time. Residency programs have rather rigid schedules and even the most thought through back up systems don’t accommodate the last minute life issues that can occur unexpectedly when you are a new parent and have a new baby at home. Residencies try to be reasonable when life issues emerge but it isn’t always easy and there is always some sort of “pay back”. Even when unexpected life issues emerge – daycare crises, infant illness, or a family crisis, it’s almost easier to find a way to get to your shift. That’s how intense the pressure is on you at the time. I recall seeing an Attending pregnant with her 3rd child in tears one day because some small issue had unraveled at home. I asked a mentor about it and she told me “You’ll see when your baby comes. Some days the pressure just gets to you. Just come talk to one of us. There are a few who understand and can help.”

Reading that Dr. Martin was brave enough to go part time was like seeing a rose among weeds. The benefit to her and her family was enormous. When working her “on” months, she can focus and feel less guilty, knowing her time with her family is coming. When she has her “off” months, she’s refreshed “emotionally accessible” to her family.

A recent study by Martin’s program director Dr. Robert Vinci showed that today’s medical students value part time options in residency programs, yet few residents are utilizing those options when they do exist and the majority of programs are still very traditional. According to the article, only 25% of US residencies have part time options with only 10% of residents in those programs utilizing the part time paths.

So, there’s a big disconnect in medical education between desire for better lifestyle and what is available, no different than what those of us who have completed our education and training have experienced within the health care system for years. While it’s discouraging that our caring profession doesn’t have a system that allows us to care for ourselves and our families, it’s encouraging that we are all finally speaking up that balance between work and home isn’t a frill but a necessity – even for physicians.

This is why it is so crucial that doctors at every level of today’s health care system not only have a voice in the health care system discussions under way but be the key players in crafting the new system. This is our career, our life’s work. We would never tell the Government how to do their jobs…what makes them think they call tell us how to do ours?

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Gwenn Is In*

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