Due to broad social changes and efforts from leaders in GI, there is renewed interest in family planning and parental leave policies for GI trainees. The American Board of Medical Specialties now permits trainees a minimum of 6 weeks away during training, without automatically requiring an extension of training time or completely depleting vacation time, for boards eligibility.1,2 However, national and institutional guidance for family planning and pregnancy during GI fellowship is lacking. How can gastroenterology fellowship programs support fellows taking parental leave and enact fair policies? We review the scope of the problem, describe our experience in developing resources within our GI fellowship program, and highlight areas that require further development.
The scope of the issue
There is no national data yet on the number of GI fellows that are parents prior to starting fellowship or who become parents during fellowship. We estimate that approximately 25% of fellows enter training as parents or become parents during fellowship, although 40%-50% may have an intention to have children.3,4 Fellows may be worried that they will “fall behind” or be perceived as less committed if they devote time to childrearing or take parental leave.5-7 Indeed, worries about discrimination based on pregnancy and parental leave are borne out by the experiences of older physicians (in particular, female physicians).8,9
State- and institution-specific benefits vary from program to program. Nationally, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides only unpaid leave and applies only to trainees who have been employed for greater than 12 months.10 Benefits may not always be well advertised, and even when they are, trainees (and attendings) may feel uncomfortable taking full advantage. One survey of GIs revealed that, although two-thirds believed that 6-8 weeks of maternity leave was inadequate, half took less than that amount due to fears about financial and professional consequences.8
Pregnancy during GI fellowship is a special concern. GI fellowship consists of long work hours, includes night call, and can be physically demanding. All three of these factors have been associated with preterm delivery, infertility, and miscarriage.11,12 In addition, there are no guidelines for ergonomic adjustments or infection precautions for pregnant endoscopists. We have compiled information about infection prevention guidance in pregnancy (available from the authors on request) derived from guidance from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which recommends the same precautions for pregnant health care workers as for nonpregnant health care workers.13 In regards to SARS-CoV-2, we believe that the decision to perform procedures on patients with COVID-19 infection should be individualized, although vaccinated endoscopists should be reassured by the exceedingly low rates of infection after vaccination and with appropriate personal protective equipment. Radiation is yet another concern. There are limited data on radiation dosages incurred by workers in the endoscopy suite and no pregnancy-specific data, which may lead trainees to avoid fluoroscopic procedures and unnecessarily double up on lead gowns.8,11,14-17
Breastfeeding accommodations, and access to lactation rooms for trainees, are required by federal law for a minimum of 12 months.18 Should a trainee choose to breastfeed, education of staff and attendings is critical because many may be unaware of the specific needs pertaining to lactation. Staff should be aware that 30-45 minutes are needed to prepare, pump, and store milk. Trainees should not be solely responsible for educating their attendings and staff.