Female Doctors Have Higher Infertility Rates and Riskier Pregnancies: What Can Be Done?

Cassie Shortsleeve

January 27, 2023

In 2021, Eugene Kim, MD, division director of pediatric surgery and vice chair in the department of surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, gave his presidential address to the Association for Academic Surgery.

"Presidents tend to give a message of hope or inspiration; I probably took it in a different way," he said.

Dr Eugene Kim

Kim told the story of one of his clinical partners, Eveline Shue, who, after five rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), became pregnant with twins. A high-achiever in her field, Shue continued working the grueling hours required by her job throughout pregnancy until she noticed concerning symptoms — musculoskeletal issues, extreme swelling, and more. She and her group decided that she should step back from work in her third trimester. A few days later, Shue suffered a stroke. She was rushed to the hospital where her babies were delivered by emergency C-section. Shue underwent brain surgery but later recovered and is still practicing in Southern California.

"I remember being at her bedside thinking, 'How could we have let this happen? How could we have prevented this?' "

Kim's speech kicked off a firestorm of awareness about pregnancy complications among physicians. "I got scores of emails from women around the country, surgeons in particular, who felt like their issues had been seen. The conversation was long overdue," he said.

Family planning issues, pregnancy complications, infertility, and pregnancy loss are common, pervasive, and often silent issues in medicine. In July 2021, Kim and a group of other researchers published a study in JAMA Surgery. It revealed staggering truths: When compared to non-surgeons, female surgeons were more likely to delay pregnancy, use assisted reproductive technology such as IVF, have non-elective C-sections, and suffer pregnancy loss. In the study, 42% of surgeons had experienced pregnancy loss — more than double the rate of the general population. Almost half had serious pregnancy complications.

Research has found that female physicians in general have a significantly greater incidence of miscarriage, infertility, and pregnancy complications than the general population. According to a 2016 survey in the Journal of Women's Health, the infertility rate for physicians is nearly 1 in 4, about double the rate of the general public.

The Barriers to Starting a Family

Physicians face significant professional barriers that impact family planning. Demanding jobs with exhausting and often unpredictable hours contribute to a culture that, traditionally, has been far from family friendly. As a result, many physicians start families later. "For a pediatric surgeon, you finish training at age 35 — minimum," says Kim. "Simply being a surgeon makes you a high-risk pregnancy candidate just because of the career."

Dr Ariela Marshall

In 2020, Ariela L. Marshall, MD, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of medicine, co-authored a commentary article in Academic Medicine titled "Physician Fertility: A Call to Action" which was based on her own experiences with infertility. Marshall was 34 when she and her husband decided to start a family, and she says her infertility diagnosis "came as a shock."

"I never stopped to think about the consequences of a career path where I'm not going to be established until my 30s," Marshall says. "I never thought about how long hours, overnight shifts, or working all the time could impact my fertility."

It would take four cycles of IVF egg retrieval to create embryos and one failed implantation before Marshall became pregnant with her son.

When it comes to the timing of pregnancy, medical culture also plays a role. "There's a lot of messaging around when it's appropriate to carry a baby — and it's not until after training is done," says Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, a clinical associate professor and special advisor for DEI programs at Stanford University Department of Medicine.

There are always exceptions. Some institutions are more flexible than others about pregnancy during residency. But Salles notes that this attitude is "not universal," partly because of the lack of a comprehensive approach to pregnancy or parenthood in the United States. "There's no federal paid parental leave in this country," reminds Salles. "That signals that we don't value parenting."

The trickle-down effect of this in medicine is more like a waterfall. Some physicians complain when other physicians are out on leave. There's an additional burden of work when people take time away, and there are often no support structures in place for backup or fill-in care. Salles said doctors often tell her that they were responsible for finding coverage for any time off during pregnancy or after becoming a parent. A paper of hers published in JAMA Surgery found that, for physicians, a fear of burdening others was a major barrier to getting pregnant during residency in the first place.

The Physical Consequences

Although research supports the benefits of physical activity throughout pregnancy, a job such as surgery that requires being on your feet for long periods of time "is not the same as exercise," explains Erika Lu Rangel, MD, a gastrointestinal surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Kim's lead author on the JAMA Surgery article.

Dr Erika Lu Rangel

Surgeons operating for more than 12 hours a week are at higher risk for pregnancy complications, the study found. Rangel also cites data suggesting that night shifts or swing shifts (the hours between day and night) put women at higher risk for pregnancy complications.

Equally alarming: Medical trainees appear to have "almost as high a rate of pregnancy complications as surgeons who have already completed their training," said Rangel. It is a concerning finding since, as a younger cohort, they should have lower complication rates based on their age. But doctors in training may be on their feet even more than surgeons during long shifts.

Like Salles, Rangel sees these issues as part of a pervasive culture of "presenteeism" in medicine, and she points out that many surgeons don't even take time off to grieve pregnancy loss or physically recover from it. "We work even when we're sick and even when it's not good for our health," she said. "I think that's an unhealthy behavior that we cultivate from the time that we're trainees, and we carry it on through when we're in practice."

Penn Medicine's Marshall remembers that her own maternity leave was "not an easy process to navigate." From her hospital room on a magnesium drip for preeclampsia, she still attended Zoom meetings with her colleagues. "Nobody says, 'Oh, you have to do this,' " Marshall explains, "but you wind up feeling guilty if you're not there at all moments for everyone. That's also something that needs to change." 

Rangel was pregnant with her oldest son as a fourth-year surgery resident. The day she gave birth to him she remembers waking up with a flu-like illness and a fever. She went to work anyway, because "you don't call in sick as a resident." She was barely able to complete her rounds and then had to lie down between cases. A co-resident found her and took her to labor and delivery. She had gone into premature labor at 37 weeks, and her son went into the NICU with complications.

"I remember feeling this enormous guilt," says Rangel. "I'd been a mom for just a few minutes, and I felt like I had already failed him because I had prioritized what the residency thought of me above what I knew was necessary for his health."

Hope for the Future

Disturbed by the status quo, many physicians are pushing for change. "I think there's a really important and positive conversation going on in the medical community right now about ways that we need to support new parent physicians," said Rangel.

Parental leave is a key part of that support. Last year, The American Board of Medical Specialties enacted a mandate that all specialty boards 2 years or more in duration must provide at least 6 weeks of parental and caregiver leave. This year, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) required that all training programs match that policy. "This sends a message to policymakers and leaders in American medicine that this is a priority," said Rangel.

In January 2022, a group from the University of Michigan also published an article in the Annals of Surgery called "Safe and Supported Pregnancy: A Call to Action for Surgery Chairs and Program Directors." The essay urged leading groups such as the ACGME and the American Board of Surgery to "directly address the health and safety of pregnant trainees" and specifically, to "allow for further flexibility during training for pregnancy and peripartum periods," calling these "fundamental necessities for cultural progress."

Others have recommended allowing pregnant trainees more flexibility in their schedules or front-loading certain parts of the training that may be more difficult as a pregnancy progresses. Insurance coverage for fertility preservation and reproductive endocrinology services, and support for reentry (including lactation and childcare) are also issues that must be addressed, says Salles.

A new paper of Rangel's in JAMA Surgery suggests that things like mentorship for residents from faculty can also be important pieces of the puzzle.

Education about reproductive health must start earlier, too — as early as medical school. Research suggests only 8% of physicians receive education on the risks of delaying pregnancy. Those who do are significantly less likely to experience pregnancy loss or seek infertility treatment.

Salles recalls sitting in a classroom learning about advanced maternal age at a time when age 35 seemed unimaginably distant. "It was never taught — at least to my recollection — in a way that was like, 'this could be your future,' " Salles says." It was more like this abstract patient who might have advanced maternal age and what the consequences would be. Maybe some of my colleagues put two and two together, but I definitely didn't."

Marshall is the curriculum chair for the IGNITEMed Initiative, which aims to educate medical students about issues not discussed in traditional medical school curricula. Marshall and her colleague Julia Files, MD, talk with IGNITEMed students about reproductive life planning.

"Raising awareness is a very big thing. That's not just true for medical students but for professionals at every level of medicine," Marshall said. "Residency and fellowship training program directors, department chairs, and hospital CEOs all need to understand that these issues are very common in the people they oversee — and that they are medical issues, like any other medical issue, where people need time off and support."

Cassie Shortsleeve is a longtime journalist with a particular focus on parenting issues. Her work has appeared in Women's Health, Parents, What to Expect, and many others. She is also the founder of Dear Sunday , an online platform advocating for new or soon-to-be moms.

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