Enough Is Enough: The Pandemic and Loss of Female Oncologists

Johanna Poterala, MD · Florez Lab


February 08, 2022

Imagine this: As a young girl, you decide you want to become a doctor when you grow up. You spend countless hours studying, researching, and volunteering to eventually make it into medical school. Four years later, you graduate top of your class and match into your first-choice residency program. You are so proud of yourself!

During your last year of residency, a pandemic takes the entire world by storm. You persevere through your last 14 months of residency that included additional time in the ICU, not seeing your colleagues, and interviewing for your new job all from your own living room. After all of this, you finally get to start doing what you have been waiting to do for the past decade: train with the brilliant minds in hematology and oncology.

All of a sudden, your female mentors and pillars of the oncology world start disappearing around you due to early retirement, new career opportunities, or deciding to leave clinical medicine all together. You start to question: If these incredible women have decided that the sacrifice this career requires is too much, then (1) How will I survive? and (2) Did I make a huge mistake in my career decision? Spoiler alert: This girl is me.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job and reduced professional efficacy."

We know that 33% of oncologists are feeling burned out right now, according to the Medscape National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021. Of the 51% of female physicians that are burned out, work-life balance has been identified as the biggest workplace concern to them. Research has shown that hours per week devoted to direct patient care is the dominant predictor of burnout for practicing oncologists. But in academic oncology, that is followed by grant deadlines, manuscript rejections, and the constant reminders that you are a new face in oncology, a specialty that was previously male-dominated.

In less than a year, we have had several key female oncologists leave our cancer center. While some made the decision to retire early, two of them chose to pivot their careers and leave clinical medicine to assist with drug development and clinical trials. Although this is extremely important work for cancer care, I was shocked to hear that these amazing and successful clinicians were choosing to remove all direct patient care from their practice, when for many of them patient care was what motivated them to pursue medicine in the first place. They were loved by their patients, respected as researchers, and well known as educators within the division.

One shared that she no longer felt like she could be a good mother, wife, or daughter with what was currently being demanded by her to have a successful academic career. In hearing this news, I was saddened to have to say goodbye to a mentor of mine and immediately started second-guessing my career choice. I felt that my goal of having an impactful career and prosperous home life was not only unattainable, but potentially unrealistic.

While we know that female physicians already experience a greater degree of burnout, the pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. This is especially true in cancer care. It has been estimated that new cancer diagnosis have decreased by as much as 23% since the beginning of the pandemic. This delay in diagnosis will lead to patients presenting with more advanced disease, busier clinic schedules, and worsened clinical outcomes for years to come. I worry with no end in sight what this will mean for women currently in oncology, in addition to those in training or deciding if they should pursue this as a career.

Extrapolating evidence from prior epidemics, physicians are at increased risk for burnout due to immediate and long-term effects from this pandemic. We need to act now to not only continue addressing previously existing individual and organizational causes of burnout but also develop strategies to provide support for the COVID-19–specific impacts on oncologists' well-being. Read this recent editorial published by the American Society of Clinical Oncology for helpful suggestions on how to do this.

A recent cross-sectional survey found that 22% of academic female oncologists were likely or very likely to pursue a career outside of academia in the next 5 years. Losing these women would be detrimental to the field. This would mean a significant number of patients losing their long-term oncologists who they have years of care with, trainees losing their professional and research mentors to guide and help mold them into successful independent practitioners and researchers, and arguably most important, little girls losing role models to show them that regardless of their gender, they can become an oncologist.

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About Dr Johanna Poterala
Johanna Poterala, MD, is a current hematology and oncology fellow at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center. Dr Poterala completed her medical education at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, and graduated in 2018 with Alpha Omega Alpha distinction. She went on to complete her internal medicine residency at the University of Wisconsin. Her current research interests include gender disparities in oncology and therapeutics for low hormone receptor–positive breast cancer.

Connect with Dr Poterala on Twitter: @JPoteralaMD

The Florez Lab, formerly known as the Duma Lab and the Social Justice League, was founded in August 2019 and focuses on social justice issues in medicine, including discrimination and gender bias in academic and clinical medicine, cancer health disparities, and medical education.


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