Physician Diversity

Supporting physician mothers on their journey

Being a mother and a physician is hardly a walk in the park for Tiffani Bell, MD, who has her hands full with a two-year-old and newborn twins.

With what seems like two full time jobs—three young children and a budding career as an assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem—Dr. Bell has worked hard to balance motherhood and her medical career. But it was not without a few obstacles to overcome along the way.

“While motherhood is something that is generally celebrated, it can sometimes feel like a hurdle to be overcome professionally, especially when one has to take time off work, has a difficult pregnancy or unexpected health issues,” says Dr. Bell. “Yet, even though being a mother and physician does require hard work, both roles still bring me great joy.”

“Physician mothers add diversity and a different perspective to the field of medicine which may help some patients feel better understood when encountering struggles,” she adds.

I am a woman and a physician

Completing medical school and residency is a battle of its own and can be even more of a struggle if you don’t have someone to look up to.

A beacon of light for her was the Black Psychiatrists of America (BPA). Through the BPA, Dr. Bell had an outlet to process the microaggressions that women and minority physicians may experience during training and in practice.

Early in her career, Dr. Bell experienced challenges that stemmed from patients who refused to be treated by an African American physician. “Taken aback and unsure how to handle the situation,” she reached out to her mentors at the BPA who helped her find the best way to move forward while also protecting her own well-being.

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Unfortunately, the struggle for patient acceptance did not end in residency. When introducing herself as the physician, Dr. Bell found she was often called by her first name or simply, “sweetie.”

Imagine a patient asking, “Do you have the same certifications as everyone else?” The dismissal of her medical degrees and credentials repeatedly struck a chord.

“I am frequently mistaken for the social worker, nurse, janitor, pretty much anything but the physician,” she said.

This led to self-doubt and wondering why she was not being addressed like her male colleagues.

It was only when she found articles about other female physicians not being called doctor, and the support of a Facebook group, that she knew she was not alone.

To join the Facebook group, you had to be a mom and a physician—two titles Dr. Bell finds great joy from. As a member of this closed group, she has reached out to other moms because “it is a good place for support and camaraderie.”

“There is power in sharing stories and lessons with those who truly understand your struggle,” says Dr. Bell. “Hearing the stories of other female physicians teaches me that it is possible to achieve a healthy balance between my personal life and work.”

“Knowing that we all have similar struggles helps normalize our experience and makes it more bearable when times get hard,” she adds. “It is important to have a safe space to express frustrations, joys and strategize for the future.”

Every mother has her own journey

Unfortunately, there is a constant battle between doing the right thing for your child or your health without being perceived as a “slacker” or less dedicated to the field of medicine, says Dr. Bell. However, finding balance is key.

Being a mother doesn’t count you out in terms of being able to work in organized medicine or leadership, she adds. But it may require more flexibility, less sleep and a family that is supportive.

Read this story in its entirety as featured in our inaugural issue of AMA Moving Medicine.