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Are doctors morally obligated to prioritize work over their personal lives?

Earlier this month, mother and anesthesiologist Karen Sibert, MD wrote a highly controversial New York Times op-ed piece that has ignited the blogosphere and sparked an ongoing conversation on doctors' roles and what physicians owe to their patients and society. Sibert specifically chided the increasing number of doctors (especially female doctors) who, feeling like a 80-100-hour work week isn't compatible with coming home and preparing dinner for a screaming toddler, choose to work part-time or to stop practicing medicine altogether. In her article, Sibert urges these doctors to keep in mind that their personal choices have public consequences.

The debate raged on earlier today in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin where Sibert, who was joined by anesthesiologist Michelle Au, MD, and two other doctors/mothers, emphasized:

We don't have enough doctors, even today. And now the estimates are that for every doctor in their 60s who retires, it's going to take between one-and-a-half and two doctors to replace him or her because of the expectation that people just don't have to work as hard.

Au, who numbers among the many doctors whose feathers were ruffled by Sibert,  has called the piece "sexist, inflammatory, and frankly discouraging." Au  pointed out that it's counterproductive to  target women, who are still working to establish themselves in the medical field, for attempting to strike a balance between their careers and their personal lives. Women capable of making excellent doctors, Au suggests, may be intimidated by an argument that could be interpreted as "go all the way or get out."

Sibert defended her position that people who choose to become doctors take on a social obligation to the tax-paying public that subsidizes their education - especially given there's a physician shortage. Her wording suggests that those unwilling to accept the rigorous scheduling demands of a doctor might be better off staying out of medicine to begin with.

The debate is a very tricky one (I'm personally torn on the issue), and adds yet another talking point to the prickly - and sometimes downright violent - discourse on women in medicine.

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