Motherhood in Healthcare: Are We Doing Enough to Support Our Moms?
Women In Healthcare: How Far We’ve Come
As mother’s day approaches, most of us will be thinking about ways to appreciate the mothers around us on this special day. But just how vital is motherhood in the world of healthcare? What different types of challenges do mothers face, and how can we support them to ensure a healthy workforce?
It is long known that women make up the majority of the healthcare workforce (76%, to be exact). The proportion of female physicians is also on the rise - in 2019, it was estimated that 36.3% of the physician workforce were women, compared to 30.4% in 2010 (US). In the same year, for the first time, women outnumbered men in medical schools, further supporting the growing trend of women to become our next generation of doctors. In line with modern-day patterns seen across all industries, it has been encouraging to see that women in healthcare are entering higher-paid positions, emphasizing their importance within the workforce.
With such a significant proportion of healthcare professionals being women, there is no doubt that most will go on to become mothers. How can we support motherhood to align the healthcare sector with modern-day values as seen in other sectors?
Mothers in Healthcare: Why They Matter
The benefits of having healthy mothers as healthcare workers extend beyond the regular societal and ethical arguments for supporting working mothers. For one, it can be pointed out that healthcare professionals are better at their professional jobs by being parents. Parenthood and healthcare professions require many similar qualities - patience, kindness, communication, critical thinking, and more. Parents learn different ways to display these qualities by spending time with their children. They also appreciate a different perspective on life, which is essential for the healthcare profession. After all, it is valuable for health workers to be and live like the people they are treating.
Burnout rates across the workforce, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have also been on an upward trend. Clinical staff is trapped in a vicious cycle of healthcare shortages, increased workload, and further health workers leaving their jobs. Better mental well-being for the workforce (for all genders alike) is needed to retain them, including a balance between family, personal, and work life.
All in Healthcare: What do we need to specifically address?
The American Medical Association estimates that nearly one in four physicians work over 60 hours a week, with the majority working between 40-60 hours. Being available for their children can become challenging for healthcare moms. Shift work is not easy, especially as parents. Insufficient sleep and irregular weekly routines are just two of many problems exacerbated by working shifts as a parent. For women particularly, it was found that they held a greater responsibility for parenting and domestic roles than men in the same surgical specialty. It is critical that, as gender-equal societies, we have open conversations about parenting and domestic liabilities. Workplaces also should take the lead in communicating what resources and benefits are available to mothers, including support for child care for moms who work out of hours.
Mothers can also explore working remotely and flexibly to maintain their income while making sure they still have time with their children. Overburdened mothers need to be in a mindset and environment where they feel comfortable asking for help without feeling guilt, and other family members could take initiatives to assist. After all, the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Mental wellness needs to be actively practiced, and when needed, balance and values should be realigned.
The Trainee Mom
Studies have repeatedly found that women have to delay having children to prioritize their careers and training compared to men. The reasons for this may include having to prolong training for maternity leave or fear of having to amend work duties, thus missing out on valuable training opportunities.
Furthermore, long and out-of-hour shift patterns make family life difficult, particularly with young children, and strain family relationships. In one particular study, 40% of dermatologists felt that they missed out on their children’s important milestones. While certain countries and specialties have been more responsive to adopting flexible training programs, many programs remain inflexible. Flexible training programs should be a universal option, and doctors seeking this option should not be judged, challenged, or criticized for choosing so. Mentorship and mentorship programs are often also beneficial, where trainee moms can have successful female leaders with a similar background providing them encouragement, companionship, and confidence.
The New Mom
Some challenges specifically relate to new mothers in the post-partum period. This particular period of life should be recognized by society as a joyful but still particularly challenging one. Most clinicians often encourage breastfeeding yet often forget to support their own colleagues in doing so. New moms in the past have reflected that it has been challenging to pump milk at work because ‘break’ times were not respected, they had to walk long distances to find privacy, and lack of facilities within hospitals (for staff). The CDC has released guidance on ways in which we can support breastfeeding moms and it is essential to remember that despite the demanding nature of healthcare, healthcare mothers deserve the same.
It is estimated that postpartum depression affects up to 17% of new mothers worldwide. Again, the workforce should be aware of this, and support groups should exist to assist those struggling with mood, who are already working within the demanding environment of healthcare.
The difficulties of being a mother start fro before motherhood itself. Hyperemesis (severe vomiting), reduced mobility, or bleeding are some challenges that pregnant women face. Much of healthcare work involves standing or going from patient to patient, so medical teams simply pulling up a chair could make a difference.
Professionals working in radiology or with radioactive substances (such as interventional cardiologists, support workers for nuclear medicine, etc.) often have to amend their work duties to avoid radiation. This, again, could be potentially challenging for trainees who fear missing out on training opportunities. An amended training schedule could perhaps help ensure that these opportunities are replaced at a later stage.
COVID-19 has also changed the way that many pregnant health workers work. The Royal College of Midwives, for example, still advises their staff to avoid direct patient contact from 28 weeks of pregnancy. This particularly affects orderly, nursing, and auxiliary staff, whose jobs heavily rely on patient contact, and remote or consulting options may not be possible.
In the past, women have reported that “women are not taken seriously, as they may soon get pregnant.” A fundamental shift in healthcare and training culture is critical in retaining the current working population. This could be done through active conversations with our communities about the importance of motherhood in healthcare and ways in which societies can be supportive.
Last but not least, women who have experienced miscarriages or those undergoing fertility treatment should not be forgotten. It is tough to deal with personal loss when faced with life and death in the workplace every day. Though one in four to five pregnancies end in miscarriages, it is a topic that is often not discussed openly enough. Colleagues, mentors, and the community should be respectful that this period should be regarded as a significant grieving event. Virtual support groups can help health workers, particularly those who work irregular shift patterns, in assisting women in understanding that they are not alone and find encouragement.
Medcase hosted a Live Roundtable on "Motherhood & Modern Healthcare." Watch the recording here to hear from healthcare professional moms on the challenges of motherhood and how to support one another.