Where physician-mothers and physician-fathers had scored about the same on depression levels pre-pandemic, by August 2020 the women scored significantly higher than men on the depression scale.

The researchers also compared physician-parents with physicians who were not parents in 2018 or 2020. The non-parents had no gender gap in depression or anxiety scores on either survey.

Elena Frank, Ph.D., the Intern Health Study’s director and an assistant research scientist at the Michigan Neuroscience Institute, notes that the study is the first to provide evidence that pandemic conditions have contributed to gender disparities in work-family conflict and mental health status among physician-parents.

The study also confirms anecdotal reports that the emotional toll and career costs of the pandemic are greater for mothers than fathers.

“With the increased burden placed on physician-mothers during the pandemic, these findings show the need for immediate action to ensure that they have access to adequate support at work and at home,” said Frank, the study’s first author. “Establishing institutional and public policy solutions to mitigate the long-term effects on the well-being and careers of physician-mothers will also be critical, including a viable path for re-integration into medicine as we move out of the pandemic.”

MORE FROM THE LAB: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

“Mothers across professions have been torn between their careers and their home lives during the pandemic,” said Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D. “We were fortunate that we had followed these physicians from before the pandemic allowing us to understand how their lives changed. Mothers in other professions likely had similar experiences.”

Sen is the principal investigator of the Intern Health Study, director of the U-M Frances and Kenneth Eisenberg and Family Depression Center, and a professor in MNI and the Department of Psychiatry.

SEE ALSO: Are Women Physicians Fairly Represented in the COVID-19 News Cycle?

The Intern Health Study, which is also studying the impact of the pandemic on physicians who were in training at many U.S. and Chinese teaching hospitals during 2020 and 2021, began in the early 2000s.

Because first-year residents, called interns, all go through a similarly stressful and intense experience, the study uses them as a population that gives insights into the roles of sleep, stress and genetics on mental health. It is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH101459).

In addition to Frank and Sen, the study’s authors are Zhuo Zhao, M.S., and Yu Fang, M.S.E. of U-M, Lisa Rotenstein, M.D., M.B.A. of Harvard Medical School, and senior author Constance Guille, M.D., co-investigator of the Intern Health Study and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Paper cited: “Experiences by Gender of Work-Family Conflict and Mental Health Symptoms Among Physician Parents During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” JAMA Network Open, DOI:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.34315

Like Podcasts? Add the Michigan Medicine News Break on iTunes, Google Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.