When Doctors Marry Doctors

February 18, 1999

Women are from Venus, men are from Mars, or so goes the conventional wisdom about differences between the sexes. But do differences of such interplanetary scope exist even between men and women doctors, many of whom are married to each other? A study published in the February 16 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine finds they do.

Nearly half of all new physicians are women, and traditionally half of women doctors have married other doctors, forming a union called colloquially an "MD2" (MD-squared). If the pattern continues, half of all physicians soon will be married to physicians.

Since a career in medicine traditionally has demanded single-minded dedication from practitioners, the study asked how physicians married to physicians were affected by their chosen profession, and whether this varied for men and women.

The study surveyed 1,208 young physicians living across the country. Both women and men MD2s differed in many ways from their peers whose spouses were not physicians. Physicians married to physicians worked fewer hours on average, earned less money, and more often played a major role in raising their children.

The study was conducted by researchers from the San Francisco (CA) and Cleveland (OH) Veterans Affairs Medical Centers, the University of California San Francisco, University Hospitals of Cleveland, and Case Western Reserve University.

Among MD2s, however, women differed greatly from men: they worked fewer hours on average, earned less money, and more often were primary or equal caregivers to their children. Women MD2s were also more likely to arrange their work schedules to care for their children and were less likely than men to report success in achieving career goals. Furthermore, compared to women physicians married to non-physicians, women MD2s were more likely to report that they had substantially limited their professional lives for family reasons.

Nonetheless, both men and women MD2s enjoyed many advantages, compared to doctors whose spouses were not physicians. Their family incomes were substantially higher than the family incomes of other physicians (70 percent of MD2 households earned more than $200,000 compared to 47 percent of other doctors' households), they more often benefited from sharing professional interests with their spouses, and more often felt their spouses' careers were successful. Moreover, MD2s achieved career and family goals as often as doctors who married non-physicians, and they experienced conflict between their professional and family roles no more frequently than did other doctors.

The study results provide new information for young physicians planning their careers and families, according to Seth Landefeld, MD, the study's senior author and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and head of geriatrics at UCSF and the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

"Most of us know that men and women are equal, of course," says Landefeld, "but these results demonstrate how different we are. We need to recognize that men and women physicians -- like their patients -- often assume somewhat traditional gender roles, even when they are married to other physicians. As the numbers of women physicians and MD2s increase, these gender roles will have an increasing effect on the medical profession. We don't yet know whether these roles are chosen freely -- for example, do women MD2s choose to work fewer hours because their combined family income is higher? -- or whether constraints in society and the workplace force these choices on men and women. We need to learn the answer to that question."

The researchers surveyed 2,200 physicians who graduated between 1980 and 1990 from two medical schools in Ohio. One hundred physicians were randomly selected from each of the 11 graduating classes of each school. A total of 1,208 eligible physicians responded, 752 men and 456 women. The surveys were designed to inquire about the physicians' professional and personal lives. The physicians were questioned about socio-demographic characteristics, professional experience, incomes, and their perceptions about their careers and family lives.

Co-authors of the study were Nancy W. Sobecks, MD; Rebecca Lasek, PhD; Amy Justice, MD, PhD, Department of Internal Medicine; Susan Hinze, PhD, and Heidi Taylor Chirayath, MA, Department of Sociology; Barbara Juknialis, MA, and Stuart Youngner, MD, Program in Health Care Research; all of Case Western Reserve University; Mary Margaret Chren, MD, Department of Dermatology, San Francisco VA Medical Center; John Aucott, MD, Park Medical Group, Johns Hopkins University; and Richard Fortinsky, PhD, University of Connecticut Health Center.

University of California - San Francisco

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