Women physicians and the pandemic: A snapshot


COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on the lives of all women physicians, Linda Brubaker, MD, recently wrote in JAMA.

“Women physicians do not have trouble balancing competing demands any more than men physicians do. It is simply a more common expectation that women physicians will adjust their professional lives,” she observed.

The daily grind of caring for patients during a global pandemic is taking an emotional and mental toll on doctors as well as a physical one. “The recently publicized suicide of emergency physician Lorna Breen, MD, following her intense work during the pandemic in New York should cause every physician to reflect on their culture in medicine,” Dr. Brubaker wrote in the article. In an interview, she expounded on the current climate for women psychiatrists and physicians in general, offering some coping techniques.

Question: The pandemic has amplified disparities among men and women physicians. What may be the repercussions from this, not just for patient care, but for work-life balance among women physicians?

Answer: Focusing on women in academic roles, both research and clinical productivity have changed in the professional arena. Many women continue to bear a disproportionate share of family responsibilities and have reduced paid work to accommodate these needs. These changes can impact academic promotion and, therefore, subsequent academic opportunities for leadership. These gaps will add to the well-recognized gender wage gap. Women physicians are more likely to experience reduced wages associated with reduced professional activities. This reduces their annual earnings, which reduces their contributions to Social Security and other retirement programs. This can adversely impact their financial security later in life, at a time when women are already disadvantaged, compared with men.

Q: Are women psychiatrists facing additional burdens, given that many patients are suffering from anxiety and depression right now, and seeking out prescriptions?

A: We know that mental health concerns are on the rise. Although I cannot point to specific evidence, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that psychiatrists are dealing with an increased professional load as a result. Similar to those on the more well-recognized “front lines” in the ED and critical care units, I consider my psychiatric colleagues to be on the front lines as well, as they are addressing this marked increase in care needs, for patients and for other members of the health care team.

Q: You mentioned the suicide of Dr. Breen. What might women psychiatrists take away from this incident?

A: Physicians are drawn to our vocation with a commitment to be of service to others. During such demanding times as these, the “safety” rails between service to others and self-care shift – clearly this can endanger individual doctors.

Q: What advice might you have for women in this profession? Any resources that could provide support?

A: My advice is to ensure your own well-being, knowing that this differs for each woman. Be realistic with your time and commitments, allowing time for restoration and rest. Sometimes I tell my peers to meditate or do some other form of contemplative practice. Exercise (preferably outdoors) and sleep, including preparing for good sleep, such as not reading emails or patient charts right up until sleep time, are all important. Most importantly, identify your support team and check in regularly with them. Never hesitate to reach out for help. People truly do care and want to help you.

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