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Parental leave for residents pales in comparison to that of faculty physicians

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Parental leave: Equal for all?

Recent data by Magudia et al. have highlighted the fact that family leave policies supporting parents during medical training are widely inconsistent and in many instances do not exist. Where trainee policies do exist, benefits are routinely less robust than those of permanent faculty who receive on average 30% more paid leave time. Stratifying physician wellness needs by training status seems to be a misplaced approach.

It is not only the medical field which sees inconsistencies in the way family leave is allocated for different types of jobs. Millions of Americans receive no time off after birth or adoption, at a time when corporate America offers elite benefits for child care. In medicine, however, there is an expectation that paid family leave should be the norm, perhaps because of our mission to improve the quality of health care.

Of course, there are valid distinctions between faculty and trainees: faculty are more permanent, are more professionally differentiated and accomplished than trainees, have greater responsibilities, and are recruited for their expertise. Arguably, faculty deserve better compensation than trainees.

But the importance of parental leave transcends the routine benefits arguments. There is something more universal about how we value parenting. Parental leave policies benefit the health of parent and child, increase career satisfaction, and improve retention. The process of birth or adoption, ensuing fatigue, family bonding needs, and life-restructuring will challenge all parents regardless of career status.

Awareness of the inadequacies of parental leave policies is the first step in remedying the disparities in support for our trainees. Establishing an equal and adequate family leave policy for physicians at any stage is consistent with the goal of success and well-being for us all.

Laurel Fisher, MD, AGAF, professor of clinical internal medicine, division of gastroenterology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. She reports no conflicts of interest.



Leave policies for residents who become new parents are uneven, oft-ignored by training boards, and provide less time off than similar policies for faculty physicians. Those were the findings of a pair of research letters published in JAMA.

Kirti Magudia, MD, of the department of radiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and her colleagues reviewed childbearing and family leave policies for 15 graduate medical education (GME)–sponsoring institutions, all of which were affiliated with the top 12 U.S. medical schools. Though all 12 schools provided paid childbearing or family leave for faculty physicians, only 8 of the 15 did so for residents (JAMA. 2018 Dec 11;320[22)]:2372-4).

In programs that did provide leave, the average of 6.6 weeks of paid total maternity leave for residents was less than the 8.6 weeks faculty receive. Both are considerably less than proscribed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires large employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but only after 12 months of employment.

The research focused on only institutional policies for paid leave; unpaid leave and state policies may extend the average, and departments may offer leave that goes beyond specific policies, Dr. Magudia and her colleagues noted.

Changes in the residency population make now the right time for establishing consistent family leave policies, Dr. Magudia said in an interview. “We have people starting training later; we have more female trainees. And with the Match system, you’re not in control of exactly where you’re going. You may not have a support system where you end up, and a lot of the top training institutions are in high cost-of-living areas. All of those things together can make trainees especially vulnerable, and because trainees are temporary employees, changing policies to benefit them is very challenging.

“Wellness is a huge issue in medicine, and at large in society,” she said. “Making sure people have adequate parental leave goes a long way toward reducing stress levels and helping them cope with normal life transitions. We want to take steps that promote success among a diverse community of physicians; we want to retain as many people in the field as possible, and we want them to feel supported.”

Beyond asking all GME-sponsoring institutions to adopt parental leave policies, Dr. Magudia believes trainees must be better informed. “It should be clear to training program applicants what the policies are at those institutions,” she said. “That information is extremely difficult to obtain, as we’ve discovered. You can imagine that, if you are the applicant, it can be difficult to ask about those policies during the interview process because it may affect how things turn out.”

“If we can see changes like these made in the near future,” she added, “we will be in a good place.”

In the second study, Briony K. Varda, MD, of the department of urology at Boston Children’s Hospital, and her colleagues also noted the complications of balancing parental leave with training requirements from specialty boards. They compared leave policies among American Board of Medical Specialty member organizations and found that less than half specifically mentioned parental leave for resident physicians (JAMA. 2018 Dec 11;320[22]:2374-7).

Dr. Varda and her colleagues reviewed the websites of 24 ABMS boards to determine their leave policies; 22 had policies but only 11 cited parental leave as an option for residents. Twenty boards have time-based training requirements and allow for a median of 6 weeks leave for any reason; none of the boards had a specific policy for parental leave. In addition, only eight boards had “explicit and clear clarifying language” that would allow program directors to seek exemptions for their residents.

Though limitations like not detecting all available policies – and a subjective evaluation of the policies that were reviewed – could have impacted their study, the coauthors reiterated that the median of 6 weeks leave is less than the average leave for faculty physicians. They also emphasized the detriments associated with inadequate parental leave, including delayed childbearing, use of assisted reproduction technology, and difficulty breastfeeding.

Dr. Varda underlined the issues that arise for program directors, who “must weigh potentially conflicting factors such as adhering to board and institutional policies, maintaining adequate clinical service coverage, considering precedent within the program, and ensuring that resident physicians are well trained.” To balance the needs of all involved “novel approaches such as use of competency-based rather than time-based training milestones” to determine certification eligibility and, in return, lessen the stresses for new-parent residents, she noted.

The researchers disclosed no relevant conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Magudia K et al. JAMA. 2018 Dec 11;320[22)]:2372-4; Varda B et al. JAMA. 2018 Dec 11;320[22]:2374-7.

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