Hypocrites in our own house: Maternity leave and American Healthcare

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Netflix listens to doctors.  Google, Facebook, and Apple listens to doctors.  The United States Navy and Marine Corps listen.

The above “companies” have updated their maternity leave policies – lengthening them all past 12 weeks… and all paid.

But yet, healthcare doesn’t listen to doctors.  And let me tell you how.

I am pregnant.  Which is a blessing in of itself.  In fact, this is my 4th pregnancy, but I only have one child living.  So really, this is an absolute blessing that I have had a healthy pregnancy so far.  I should be over the moon excited.  Yet, there has been a black cloud over my heart since I first saw the “yes” on the pregnancy test.

Currently, I am the sole income for our family while my husband is in law school.  And yet, my job does not provide fully paid maternity leave.  The thoughts and stress of how we are going to balance our financial needs with my family’s emotional need for me to spend that precious, once in a lifetime time at home with our new son has left me downright drained.

I am currently in “discussions” with my large academic health physicians group as to how much paid leave I will actually receive for maternity leave.  And let me tell you, their initial response was significantly less than 12 weeks.  I think for me, the most disheartening part of these “discussions” with my employers is that they keep asking themselves, “Well, what have we done in the past?” instead of, “What should we be doing?”  Despite the fact that I will need a repeat cesarean section.  Despite the fact that due to short staffing over the past 3 years, I have given up 8 weeks of vacation and worked extended hours for years – including in-house calls up to 62 hours in a row.  Yep, folks, you read that correctly.  I have literally come in to this hospital on a Friday, and not left until a Monday morning.  And I have done it, because that is what the job required, what my hospital needed.  Trauma surgeons are a national shortage, and my profession often calls for dedication above and beyond the imaginable.

I always felt like that dedication was well placed – for my patients, for my hospital, for my community.  And that this dedication was shared by healthcare in general.  However, I feel that maternity leave is an issue that highlights my belief that for many institutions and practices, healthcare has lost its focus.  Healthcare should be about caring for people – our patients and each other.  Healthcare should be setting the standard for how other companies handle maternity leave – yet we are amongst the worst hypocrites.

After all, we are the ones recommending that women exclusively breast feed for a year – yet practice administrators dictate whether or not physicians can build 15 minute pumping breaks into their schedules.  We recommend women not return to work for 8 weeks after a cesarean section, yet we don’t pay them.  Several studies have shown that women who return to work before 12 weeks have children with more behavioral problems in early childhood, yet, if she doesn’t come back by 12 weeks, we take away her job.  We know that depression is directly linked to a lack of time off after the delivery of a baby, yet we continue to point to the letter of the law and say that what we offer is enough.  I wish these examples and studies weren’t real, but they are.

The dollars and cents seem to matter more for those that employ physicians than the health of their physicians.  The disparity of how maternity leave is handled amongst physicians here in the United States is downright shocking.  Some institutions automatically grant 12 weeks paid, but these unfortunately are in the minority. Most pregnant physicians are in a similar situation to me, and are left to fight, scramble, and scrap together time off after delivery and even time to pump when we do return to work.

And the kicker of it is, the physicians are usually the worst hit by these policies.  If I were a nurse, or an hourly employee, I would be able to roll over or accrue my vacation days. Other employees could even donate paid time off to me.  I would be mandated lunch and work breaks so I could pump.  I would never be left wondering how I could safely store breast milk for up to three calendar days. But yet none of these options are typically available to physicians.

I wish this were one of my usually snarky, humorous, Gomerblog worthy posts, but it isn’t. Unfortunately, I am writing today from a place of hurt, a place of feeling abandoned by my own profession – the people that are supposed to care about my health the most, seem to care about it the least.

I hope and pray, for the future of healthcare here in America, that these policies will change – to the benefit of the physicians, and the patients for whom we care.  After all, if we can’t take care of ourselves, how are we supposed to care for others?

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