Medical Resident Wellness

Making a medical resident's life more family friendly

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

With pregnancy and parenthood common during training, two recent studies examined the challenges residents encounter when becoming parents. Find out what the study discovered about childcare, breastfeeding and parental leave policies.  

Residency programs need more consistent parental leave, breastfeeding mothers need more spaces to express and store breast milk while at work, and parents need better access to onsite childcare, two recent studies looking at parenthood during training concluded.

These are areas of concern because residency coincides with the prime reproductive years and women comprise one-half of medical school graduates. Parenthood is and will continue to be a frequent occurrence during training.

Slightly more than one-half of the 190 radiation oncology trainees who responded to a survey had children, according to a study in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology. Nearly 45 percent said they or their partner had a pregnancy during residency.

Similarly, general surgery residents commonly take parental leave. In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 41 percent of the 66 general surgery residency program directors who responded to a survey said at least once a year they have a resident who takes maternity or paternity leave.

New mothers told researchers they worried about being able to breastfeed when they went back to work. Among radiation oncology residents, just 40.7 percent said they had enough time and privacy to pump breast milk.

General surgery residents told researchers they had a hard time finding time to express breast milk. Among the general surgery program directors, only 8 percent said their program had a formal breastfeeding policy. But 77 percent said a typical attending at their program would let a resident scrub out of a case to pump.

Nearly 60 percent of program directors said there were lactation facilities at the hospitals; however, programs in the Northeast are less likely than other parts of the country to have a spot for mothers, with just 29 percent of program directors reporting available rooms, versus 71 percent in other parts of the country.

Childcare facilities also were a concern. Nearly 40 percent of general surgery program directors said there was on-site childcare at the hospital. But even when available, residents can face waiting lists to enroll, and pick-up and drop-off times often do not work with their schedules.

“We encourage program directors to be attentive to the well-being of trainees who are parents and where possible work to improve availability of childcare and lactation facilities,” authors of the general surgery study said.

Paternal leave is a concern for both men and women, and policies—when in place—vary nationwide.

“Pregnancy- and parenthood-friendly policies are not a gender-specific issue, as men are increasingly interested in taking time off after the birth of a child; however, the time and energy and attention required for pregnancy and childbearing inherently disproportionately affects women, so attention to such policies can help to narrow the gender gap observed in academic and scientific achievement,” radiation oncology study authors said.

Overall, about one-half of “respondents believed a standardized maternity and paternity leave policy should be put into place,” the study said. “The remaining respondents felt that different sizes and institutional cultures across programs would make a national standardized policy challenging and unrealistic.”

Among program directors for general surgery, two-thirds reported having a formal maternity leave; 48 percent reported a paternity leave policy. Study authors encouraged programs without policies to create them.

“Doing so may reduce the apprehension that residents feel in addressing these needs and allow for predictability in planning for parental leave,” general surgery study authors said. “Moreover, the existence of such guidelines is relevant to the recruitment of future trainees. … Talented students may opt out of pursuing surgery because they wish to be parents and view surgical training as incompatible with pregnancy and childrearing.”