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Are more female physicians leaving medicine as pandemic surges?


 

For mid-career oncologist Tanya Wildes, MD, the pandemic was the last straw. In late September, she tweeted: “I have done the academically unfathomable: I am resigning my faculty position without another job lined up.”

She wasn’t burned out, she insisted. She loved her patients and her research. But she was also “100% confident” in her decision and “also 100% sad. This did not have to happen,” she lamented, asking not to disclose her workplace for fear of retribution.

Being a woman in medicine “is a hard life to start with,” Dr. Wildes said in an interview. “We all have that tenuous balance going on and the pandemic made everything just a little bit harder.”

She describes her prepandemic work-life balance as a “Jenga tower, with everything only just in place.” But she realized that the balance had tipped, when after a difficult clinic she felt emotionally wrung out. Her 11-year-old son had asked her to help him fly his model airplane. “I told him, ‘Honey, I can’t do it because if it crashes or gets stuck in a tree ... you’re going to be devastated and I have nothing left for you.’ “

This was a eureka moment, as “I realized, this is not who I want to be,” she said, holding back tears. “Seventy years from now my son is going to tell his grandchildren about the pandemic and I don’t want his memory of his mom to be that she couldn’t be there for him because she was too spent.”

When Dr. Wildes shared her story on Twitter, other female oncologists and physicians responded that they too have felt they’re under increased pressure this year, with the extra stress of the pandemic leading others to quit as well.

The trend of doctors leaving medicine has been noticeable. A July survey from the Physicians Foundation found that roughly 16,000 medical practices had already closed during the pandemic, with another 8,000 predicted to close within the next year.

“Similar patterns” were evident in another analysis by the Larry A. Green Center and the Primary Care Collaborative, as reported in The New York Times. In that survey, nearly one-fifth of primary care clinicians said “someone in their practice plans to retire early or has already retired because of COVID-19,” and 15% say “someone has left or plans to leave the practice.” About half said their mental exhaustion was at an all-time high, the survey found.

“COVID-19 is a burden, and that added burden has tipped people over the edge of many things,” said Monica Bertagnolli, MD, chief of the division of surgical oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

“It has illustrated that we do have a lot of people who are working kind of on the edge of not being able to handle everything,” she said.

While many in medicine are struggling, the pandemic seems to be pushing more women to leave, highlighting longtime gender disparities and increased caregiving burdens. And their absence may be felt for years to come.

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