The Mother of All Burdens: COVID-19 and Physician Parents

The Mother of All Burdens: COVID-19 and Physician Parents
In healthcare crisis situations, women on the frontlines are facing more challenges and burdens than their male counterparts. (Banc d’Imatges Infermeres)

COVID-19 is putting an astronomical strain on the healthcare system and healthcare workers, with infections reported among nurses, doctors and providers across the country, and tragically many deaths.

From the likelihood of infections, and inadequate personal protective equipment, to understaffing due to exposed physicians and nurses going into quarantine for precautions—the stress is evident. 

In healthcare crisis situations, women on the frontlines are facing more challenges and burdens than their male counterparts.

Even the masks are not suitable for female healthcare providers: Personal protective equipment (PPE) are not one size fit all, and women in general have higher rates of fit testing failure. Yet many institutions have stopped fit-testing of the N95 masks, leaving women at higher risk for exposure.

new study shows the first-choice respirator provided a successful fit in 95.1 percent of the men and 85.4 percent of the women. 

With more than 60 percent of physicians under the age of 35 identifying as female, and under 40 percent identifying as men, many young women physicians are also balancing the care of young children, while also navigating how to continue to effectively execute their jobs.

In addition, there are over 1 million physicians and medical students in the U.S., with nearly 30 percent of them under the age of 40.   

In many cases, working mothers are responsible for the bulk of childcare responsibilities. With 47 states deciding to close schools, and district closures in other states, at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools have closed or are scheduled to close, or were closed and later reopened—impacting at least 55.1 million school students.  

As practicing physicians with small children at home, we both understand all parents are scrambling to find childcare and set up home schooling to continue their children’s education during the shutdown—while trying to work from home. This disproportionately affects female physicians, as they spend 8.5 more hours per week on domestic activities than male counterparts. 

Fulfilling the needs of children, while trying to maintain a productive work environment, are familiar challenges for any parent who works from home. In-home childcare providers are also limited in a time of social distancing and preventing exposure to others.  

Add to that the fear physicians and other healthcare workers face when coming home from a busy intensive care unit or emergency room shift and trying to prevent exposure of the virus to their children—which adds even more stress to an already difficult situation. 

Before even touching our children, we have to change clothing and shoes and disinfect hands immediately. An act of love has now become a vector for illness. Decontamination spaces are needed.  

To be sure, preliminary reports of those who are infected and dying are showing higher rates in men—but it is likely the social impact and repercussions are higher in women. 

During this pandemic, all physicians—regardless of gender—are stepping up, yes.

But female physicians face additional burden with the social impact of this disease.

This leaves female physicians scrambling for child care options and worrying about bringing home the disease. Relying on others to care for their children while they care for the public—often without the equipment needed to adequately protect themselves—is a stress for doctors who are mothers. 

During this extraordinary time, it is even more imperative that institutions provide ways for physicians and other essential healthcare workers to have adequate childcare options. 

States such as Washington and  Colorado have promised childcare support to health care workers during the school closure period.

At Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center where we both work, an on-site child care option for employees was established within days of school closure notification.

In addition, medical students are volunteering to help health care workers with childcare and other household-related needs across the country. 

The Mother of All Burdens: COVID-19 and Physician Parents
Pictured: New York Army National Guard medics, helping with drive-through coronavirus testing, receive instruction on how to wear protective clothing at the New York State Department of Health officers on March 14, 2020. (New York National Guard)

The fundamentals of healthcare workers providing optimal care during a crisis include appropriate PPE in a safe environment—so they do not need to make the decision if their well-being is more important than their patients’. And all healthcare workers who are parents need to have the reassurance their own children are safe. 

Recognizing that the motherlode of care during COVID-19 most frequently lies with female physicians and healthcare workers, it is time to address the disparity so everyone stays safe. 

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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About and

Inna A. Husain, MD is a board certified otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon and Section Head of Laryngology at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
Shikha Jain, MD, is a board-certified hematology and oncology physician and the physician director of media relations for the Rush University Cancer Center. She was named one of Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Emerging Leaders in 2019. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and a TedX speaker.