Archival poster.

Last week an anesthesiologist in Los Angeles named Karen Sibert stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy in an op-ed piece that was published in the NY Times.

The piece, titled “Don’t Quit This Day Job,” addressed the hackneyed issue of physician shortage in the United States.

Citing federal subsidies for graduate medical education (i.e. residency training), Dr. Sibert suggested that in order to stem the tide of part-timers (mostly women) contributing to the physician shortage, “…we can only depend on doctors’ own commitment to the profession.”

All well and good; yet depending on the magnanimity of those in a profession to save it from itself is never a successful strategy without a robust marketplace of ideas and innovation.

Dr. Sibert’s solution to the problem, however, was anything but hackneyed:

Students who aspire to go to medical school should think about the consequences if they decide to work part time or leave clinical medicine. It’s fair to ask them — women especially — to consider the conflicting demands that medicine and parenthood make before they accept (and deny to others) sought-after positions in medical school and residency. They must understand that medical education is a privilege, not an entitlement, and it confers a real moral obligation to serve.

Really?

We should ask women about their child-rearing plans before letting them go to medical school or take on a residency? Does that seem like a sensible way forward?

Dr. Sibert, citing her own full time commitment to the profession, declares:

You can’t have it all. I never took cupcakes to my children’s homerooms or drove carpool, but I read a lot of bedtime stories and made it to soccer games and school plays. I’ve ridden roller coasters with my son, danced at my oldest daughter’s wedding and rocked my first grandson to sleep. Along the way, I’ve worked full days and many nights, and brought a lot of very sick patients through long, difficult operations.

I’m glad for Dr. Sibert, but she comes across as self-righteous in the personal revelation in support of her larger claim. I certainly respect her right to have worked full time, but I’d never begrudge another professional the opportunity to work part time to help raise a family.

As you may imagine, there were some outraged letters sent in, including this one:

To the Editor:

While Dr. Karen S. Sibert’s point about the shortage of doctors entering primary care fields is valid, her proposal to address it by querying women on their future child-rearing plans smacks of patriarchy and sexism. Even if every medical school seat today were filled by a male student, at current rates of matriculation into primary care fields it would do little to mitigate the problem.

I chose to work as a part-time doctor early in my career to be supportive to my full-time physician wife. Being asked about my parenting intentions at any point in the process would have been chilling.

JOHN HENNING SCHUMANN
Chicago, June 13, 2011

I’d love to hear your thoughts.