Myth busted: MD + marital bliss may go hand in hand

The stereotype of a medical spouse languishing while his or her partner toils away at the office may be exaggerated, according to results of a national survey published in the March issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings. However, younger physicians’ interest in lifestyle specialties and work-life balance coupled with decreasing worker hours among older physicians may have serious workforce consequences.

Existing data on the marital satisfaction in the physician population are dated and often from the physician’s perspective, rather than the partner’s point of view. Tait D. Shanafelt, MD, from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and colleagues sought to fill the gap.

The researchers surveyed 1,644 spouses and partners of physicians Aug. 17, 2001, through Sept. 12, 2011, and garnered a 54.2 percent response rate. Questions focused on demographics, length of marriage, children and work lives of both spouses. Respondents also indicated the mean amount of time spent awake with their partners, satisfaction with the relationship and whether or not they had seriously contemplated divorce in the last 12 months.

The cohort resembled the general overall physician population, with a median age of 51. A majority had children and had been in the relationship more than 10 years.

“A total of 768 (86.5 percent) of spouses/partners reported they were extremely or somewhat satisfied with their relationship, with 490 (55.4 percent) reporting they were extremely satisfied,” wrote Shanafelt et al.

Analysis showed satisfaction was strongly related with time spent together, hours worked per week and the physician’s call schedule. However, partners noted that physicians came home irritable at least a few times per week (34.1 percent),  too tired to engage in family activities at least a few times per week (43.5 percent) and preoccupied with work at least a few times per week (46 percent).

Multivariate analysis suggested a link between time spent together and serious consideration of divorce; spouses who spent less time with their partners were more likely to have contemplated divorce.

“The findings challenge a number of stereotypes about physician relationships,” wrote Shanafelt et al. Male dominance in medicine is waning, most physicians’ spouses work outside the home, most spouses reported satisfaction with the relationship and 80 percent said they would choose a physician spouse again.

The researchers noted that physicians’ commitment to their spouses and families may have a negative impact on the workforce as older practicing physicians may seek to reduce work hours while younger physicians may gravitate toward lifestyle specialties that allow for more family time.

Shanafelt et al concluded by emphasizing the recipe for marital bliss: “Creating and protecting time together may be one critical ingredient for healthy relationships with physicians and achieving it can mitigate many of the negative effects of excessive work hours and a demanding professional life.”