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Doctors' Spouses: What's Not to Like?

By Parker Brown via Medpage Today:  

When it comes to domestic life for physicians, things have changed since an oversexed and gory 1971 film with Gene Hackman called "Doctors' Wives" featured as one of its taglines, "Doctors' wives have everything. Except husbands."

It turns out that there are, actually, documented cases of successful physician marriages. And some of those marriages are examined in a qualitative study in Academic Medicineby researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School.

They found four strategies for success for couples in which at least one partner was an academic physician:

  • Have shared values
  • Rely on mutual support
  • Recognize the role of each family member
  • Acknowledge that being a physician brings a benefit to the relationship

Those strategies weren't always easy to coax out of the 25 participants, though.

"The interviewer really had to work," said one of the authors of the study, Monica L. Lypson, MD, the assistant dean for medical education at the school and a practicing internist. "People ... love to complain."

But by doing an appreciative inquiry, focusing on the positive aspects only, the investigators found that there are indeed benefits to being in a relationship with a physician.

The Study

One of those significant advantages is money (which, if popular culture is any guide, can't buy happiness but can buy bacon, which is pretty close), the study found.

"My husband is a doctor," said Lypson. "So what we do is throw money at the problem. We don't have to get into who cleans the house."

Lypson said the idea for the study started when a medical student asked her how she went grocery shopping. Lypson, pregnant at the time, was a little insulted. "Well, I get in my car and drive to the store."

But the student was really asking how she managed her work, her patients, her relationships -- and how her relationship with her husband fit into all that.

Out of the interviewees, 12 were female and 13 were male. They had been married an average of 15.8 years.

Three of the participants were non-MD spouses of a physician, while the other 22 were physicians; of the latter, 10 were in a dual-MD relationship. And 40% of them got married while in residency, while another 40% were in medical school when they got married. Kids came later -- 52% of them had their first child during practice.

Included as limitations were the fact that all participants were involved with an academic medical center and the authors explored only the positive aspects of physician marriages.

Several of the participants noted the importance of support from extended family, said Lypson and her colleagues, Rachel Perlman, MD, and Paula T. Ross, PhD.

One interviewee said, "My dad saved my marriage a couple times, which was remarkable, because he was kind of a sh*tty father." During his internship year, his son and wife got sick and had diarrhea when he was on call. He called his father for help, so the dad flew in and took care of the family for 3 days.

Partners In Hardship

Helen Cappuccino -- one of several physicians MedPage Today interviewed for this story -- is an MD at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. She's had six children with her husband, a spine surgeon and team physician for the Buffalo Bills.

"When our fourth child was born, I was already pretty good at it," she said. When she was 8 1/2 months pregnant, it was her chief year as a general surgical resident and she was determined to do a surgical procedure she had been waiting to do despite a fourth-year resident eagerly waiting to step in.

But after a pre-operative medication issue, the surgery was delayed a week. "I always joke that I had my legs crossed that whole week," she said. But she made it, and after the surgery, "I walked from the OR upstairs to deliver our baby," she said.

"The biggest benefit is having somebody who understands what you've gone through and what you go through on a daily basis," said David Sandberg, MD, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the Children's Memorial Hermann Hospital, where he works with his wife, Amy Schefler, MD, a pediatric ocular oncologist. "It's very rewarding to have somebody go through that journey with you who understands it," Schefler said.

They were married while Sandberg was in residency -- the only honeymoon they had was when they got to hang out in the surgical room together.

Kim Boggess, MD, is a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Her husband is also an MD and a professor at UNC in the gynecology oncology program, and Boggess says that makes for sometimes interesting conversation.

"One particular dinner table conversation involved talking about a fairly graphic surgery involving the vagina and cervix," she said.

They were unaware that their two kids, ages 14 and 11, were sitting at the table "with their mouths gaping open in shock at our candor." That led to a family pact that the doctors wouldn't use the "V word" at the dinner table again.

In cases where there's only one physician in the relationship, one spouse can get free medical advice.

"I've completely convinced my husband of using alcohol-based wipes," said Michelle Barron, MD, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at University of Colorado Denver. On her first date with her now husband, they went out for ice cream. She watched nervously as the ice cream from the cone dripped down around his hands, and as soon as they got back to the car pulled out her alcohol wipes to clean him off.

"He's in management, always shaking hands," Barron said, before proudly adding, "But he hasn't been sick in years."

Mixing Home and Work

Things can sometimes get messy when family relationships become business ones as well.

Steven Peltz, a certified healthcare business consultant, said he was doing an operational review for a young male dermatologist. Peltz told him that the lady at the front desk was too tough on her colleagues, aggressive with patients, and had poor interpersonal skills.

"I know," said the doctor. He then asked Peltz to fire her, a task Peltz declined. When Peltz asked why he couldn't do it himself, the doctor said, "Because she's my mom."

On the other hand, one married couple -- ZoAnn Dreyer, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Texas Children's and Jeff Dreyer, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at the same hospital -- frequently shares patients; they say they enjoy working together. To avoid confusion, patients refer to ZoAnn Dreyer as "Ms. Dr. Dreyer" or "Mama Dreyer" and Jeff Dreyer as "Papa Dreyer."

But for Aruna Ganju, MD, a professor of neurological surgery at the Northwestern University of Feinberg School of Medicine who is married to a plastic surgeon, the one time she and her husband shared a patient ended in an argument. She prefers those two worlds stay separate for now.

Medic-ALL.Inc 2014


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