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The Problem With Part Time Doctors

Friday, June 24th, 2011

As anyone who has read either of my two memoirs knows, I’ve worked long hours as a ob-gyn/maternal-fetal medicine specialist, throughout my career. While it’s been a challenge, at times, and I’ve had to juggle like crazy to be the kind of mother my children could always count on, it was the life I signed up for.

I don’t regret my career choices.  Becoming a doctor is as much a calling as a profession.

So, when I read an op-ed by a woman anesthesiologist, which criticizes a recent trend among women doctors to think of medicine as a part-time career, it struck a chord.

This section, in particular, offers food for thought:

Since 2005 the part-time physician workforce has expanded by 62 percent, according to recent survey data from the American Medical Group Association, with nearly 4 in 10 female doctors between the ages of 35 and 44 reporting in 2010 that they worked part time.

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.

… The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that, 15 years from now, with the ranks of insured patients expanding, we will face a shortage of up to 150,000 doctors.

When you look at training in the medical profession as a scarce resource, provided to a small number of people, in whose hands others place their lives, you can see that it isn’t the kind of career choice you make lightly. It’s a commitment. And those who don’t feel the need to fully commit, who think of it as a profession in which they can dabble, do a disservice to the patients who need them, as well as to those who would have committed fully to the profession, if only they could have gotten into medical school.

In our do-your-own-thing society, this might seem like a harsh, even an unfair judgment. But medicine isn’t practiced for the benefit of the practitioner. It’s a service to our fellow men and women. And as long as there are so few of us that some people have long waits for needed care, those who choose this profession must be willing to be there when they’re needed. And if they can’t? There are plenty of other professions with lesser requirements.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH