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The pandemic was more disruptive to the home life of female primary care doctors who had children than that of those who did not have children, suggests a new survey’s results.
The survey, conducted by the Robert Graham Center and the American Board of Family Medicine from May to June 2020, examined the professional and personal experiences of being a mother and a primary care physician during the pandemic.
“The pandemic was hard for everyone, but for women who had children in the home, and it didn’t really matter what age, it seemed like the emotional impact was much harder,” study author Yalda Jabbarpour, MD, said in an interview.
The results of the survey of 89 female physicians who worked in the primary care specialty were published in the Journal of Mother Studies.
Jabbapour and her colleagues found that 67% of female physicians with children said the pandemic had a great “impact” on their home life compared with 25% of those without children. Furthermore, 41% of physician moms said COVID-19 greatly affected their work life, as opposed to 17% of their counterparts without children.
“Women are going into medicine at much higher rates. In primary care, it’s becoming close to the majority,” said Jabbarpour, a family physician and medical director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies. “That has important workforce implications. If we’re not supporting our female physicians and they are greater than 50% of the physician workforce and they’re burning out, who’s going to have a doctor anymore?”
Child Care Challenges
Researchers found that the emotional toll female physicians experienced early on in the pandemic was indicative of the challenges they were facing. Some of those challenges included managing anxiety, increased stress from both work and home, and social isolation from friends and family.
Another challenge physician mothers had to deal with was fulfilling child care and homeschooling needs, as many women didn’t know what to do with their children and didn’t have external support from their employers.
Child care options vanished for many people during the pandemic, Emily Kaye, MD, MPH, who was not involved in the study, said in an interview.
“I think it was incredibly challenging for everyone and uniquely challenging for women who were young mothers, specifically with respect to child care” said Kaye, assistant professor in the department of oncology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “Many women were expected to just continue plugging on in the absence of any reasonable or safe form of child care.”
Some of the changes physician-mothers said they were required to make at home or in their personal lives included physical changes related to their family safety, such as decontaminating themselves in their garages before heading home after a shift. Some also reported that they had to find new ways to maintain emotional and mental health because of social isolation from family and friends.
The survey results, which were taken early on in the pandemic, highlight the need for health policies that support physician mothers and families, as women shoulder the burden of parenting and domestic responsibilities in heterosexual relationships, the researchers said.
“I’m hoping that people pay attention and start to implement more family friendly policies within their workplaces,” Jabbarpour said. “But during a pandemic, it was essential for [female health care workers] to go in, and they had nowhere to put their kids. [Therefore], the choice became leaving young children alone at home, putting them into daycare facilities that did remain open without knowing if they were [safe], or quitting their jobs. None of those choices are good.”
Community Support as a Potential Solution
Kaye said she believes that there should be a “long overdue investment” in community support, affordable and accessible child care, flexible spending, paid family leave, and other forms of caregiving support.
“In order to keep women physicians in the workforce, we need to have a significant increase in investment in the social safety net in this country,” Kaye said.
Researchers said more studies should evaluate the role the COVID-19 pandemic had on the primary care workforce in the U.S., “with a specific emphasis on how the pandemic impacted mothers, and should more intentionally consider the further intersections of race and ethnicity in the experiences of physician-mothers.”
“I think people are burning out and then there’s all this anti-science, anti-health sentiment out there, which makes it harder,” Jabbarpour said. “If we did repeat this study now, I think things would be even more dire in the voices of the women that we heard.”
Jabbarpour and Kaye reported no disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.