Nearly 40% of female physicians cut back clinically or leave medicine entirely within their first five years of finishing training (Paturel, 2019). This statistic is staggering and poses real policy issues when considering the worsening physician shortage, particularly now that women comprise a little more than half of currently enrolled medical students.
Contributing factors are complex, but there are several common themes. One of these is the tendency we all have as physicians to follow in the footsteps of our mentors. For many, this results in self-imposed expectations related to what it means to be a physician, which are often at odds with other life goals. The time at which female physicians are forced to choose between these competing priorities is a common exit point.
As the makeup of the physician population changes, we are increasingly realizing that the lives of recent graduates — male or female — demonstrate obvious differences from the lives of those whose portraits lined our medical school hallways. Accordingly, stereotypes about what it takes to be considered successful in medicine must be challenged.
Many physicians are fearful of being perceived as weak or less serious about their careers if they express a desire to deviate from the norm. Women physicians in particular, who battle gender biases throughout their career, feel this disproportionately. While many privately acknowledge obstacles to work-life integration and wish for change, most continue to mold their lives to reflect antiquated stereotypes. Substantial debt burden faced by many recent graduates can further discourage physicians from pursuing alternative options.
Unfortunately, the end result is to threaten a physician’s willingness and faith in the ability to fight for a career that emphasizes both career longevity and career satisfaction. Combined with increasing challenges in the health care landscape, this has contributed to widespread acknowledgment of burnout. In conjunction with pressures imposed by societal gender roles, many female physicians eventually conclude that a substantial reduction in clinical responsibilities or an exit from medicine entirely is necessary.
I would argue, however, that empowering and enabling women physicians to shape careers in medicine that reflect their individual goals could prevent many physicians from coming to these conclusions. This starts by not apologizing for differences, thinking outside of the box, and knowing our worth. Women physicians will eventually comprise half of the physician workforce. Supply and demand economics will lead to a willingness to change the way jobs can be structured. While templates are convenient, they are not usually necessary.
It is imperative for women physicians to share stories and provide each other with mentorship and support. Increasing business, finance, and leadership skills lead to a stronger position at the bargaining table, as well as the ability to walk away from a bad situation and pivot towards a more favorable one.
Alternative income streams can ease financial pressures and allow for more creative options.
Collectively, women physicians can change the culture of medicine and enhance career longevity amongst physicians. Whether it’s increased flexibility, more equitable pay, or more leadership positions that we are pushing for, we need to embolden women in medicine to unapologetically go after their goals. It may be that the only limiting factor in our success will be how much we are willing to ask for.
Dr. Mehta is a radiologist, keynote speaker, writer, and physician advocate. Her missions include addressing the physician burnout epidemic through physician empowerment and cultural change in medicine, as well as increasing business and financial literacy amongst physicians in order to promote career longevity and career satisfaction. She is a strong proponent of creating physician communities to achieve these goals, with over 100k members in her online communities, Physician Side Gigs and Physician Community. Her work has been featured in numerous international media outlets, including Forbes, CNN, the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and PBS NewsHour, as well as several prominent physician focused outlets. She was named a 2020 Top Voice in Healthcare by LinkedIn. She lives and works in Charlotte, NC with her husband, who is a plastic surgeon, and her two sons.
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Paturel, A. (2019 October 01). Why women leave medicine. Association of American Medical Colleges. https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/why-women-leave-medicine