As female physicians tend to delay pregnancy until after their residencies, they are more susceptible to fertility issues. Nearly one in four female physicians who try to have a baby are diagnosed with infertility, according to a survey published in the Journal of Women’s Health in 2016. This is almost double the rate of the general public.
Women who are surgeons face similarly high rates of infertility. A survey of 692 female surgeons published in JAMA Surgery in July 2021 found that 42% had suffered a pregnancy loss – more than double the rate of the overall population. Additionally, nearly half of the surgeons surveyed had experienced pregnancy complications.
Training for doctors in the U.S. takes around 10 years, including medical school, residencies, and fellowships. On average, female physicians complete medical training at age 31, and the age when most women doctors first give birth is 32, compared with 27 for nonphysicians, according to a 2021 study.
Sleep deprivation, poor diet, and lack of exercise associated with the demands of medical training and careers can also take a toll on female doctors’ health and, in turn, their fertility. Residents are still expected to work 28-hour shifts without sleeping while pregnant.
Hematologist Ariela Marshall, MD, of Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, helped create an infertility task force with the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), which held its first national physician fertility summit in June 2021. The summit included sessions on egg freezing, benefits and insurance coverage for fertility treatment, and infertility and mental health. The association is also advocating for more accommodations for physicians who wish to start families, such as giving women the option to front-load their residency work if they know they want to try to become pregnant later in their training.
“We’re educating med students and pre-med students about fertility issues so that they are aware of them,” said Roberta Gebhard, DO, governance chair and former president of AMWA. “People say you can’t be a mom and a physician, and we’re telling you that you can, but you need to keep your options open.”