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Advice from an experienced physician: The challenges of two-physician families—How to keep it together

By Bud Chumbley, MD, MBA

There are many high-stress careers that have statistically higher than average divorce rates, including practicing medicine. You might think that statistic doubles when two physicians are in a long-term relationship or marriage, but there are actually many benefits that come from sharing life with someone who understands your career.

To share some insights on what makes two-physician marriages work, I spoke with doctors, Daniel and Rachel Bennett—physicians who have been married for 17 years and have two children. The pair started dating in medical school and have gone through internships, residencies and job changes together. They shared with me the importance of sharing goals, the stresses of balancing careers and schedules, and the joys of speaking a common language.

Sharing goals
For two-physician couples, it’s important to understand how your specialties and career goals align. With the amount of education and post-medical school training required by certain specialties, doubling that time commitment can make finding balance difficult. It’s essential for there to be open communication about which professional path each partner is pursuing and when there needs to be compromise.

With the Bennetts, since Rachel is a family physician, her practice options are more varied than Dan’s, who specializes in dermatology and dermatopathology, a much narrower field with fewer practice opportunities. The Bennetts moved to Madison five years ago so Dan could take a faculty position as a dermatopathologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, which led to his current position as vice chair of Dermatology. They came to Madison after a year in Philadelphia, where Dan completed a fellowship. Prior to that they were in Temple, Texas at Scott & White Medical Center.

Sharing similar goals or one partner specializing in a field that offers practice opportunities in nearly all locations—like family medicine—can be a key factor in a successful two-physician partnership.

Balancing two career paths and demanding schedules
If one or both partners have flexible schedules, it’s easier to divvy up household responsibilities accordingly. Partners who are both physicians have a unique understanding of why the other partner is busy, often resulting in less friction or resentment about work hours.

With that in mind, it’s important to research potential workplaces to determine if they are family friendly. I’ve seen more family-focused changes since I began practicing, and I think that many institutions are striving to offer more work-life balance.

The difficulty of coordinating two physicians’ schedules can vary depending on their specialties. According to Dan, while dermatology is typically more flexible than family medicine, his responsibilities have increased since the family moved to Madison five years ago due to his involvement in the Dermatology Department and organized medicine nationally.

One of the challenges for the Bennetts is that the children’s school and activity demands have multiplied at the same time, and with everyone’s busy schedules, there’s less time for family. On the bright side, Dan and Rachel say that they both love their work, and support, understand and admire each other’s dedication, which makes stressors like long hours easier to bear. The couple strives to set a good example of partnership balance for their two daughters.

As a family physician, Rachel is able to see patients for four to five hours a day, and the Bennetts have had help with the children from family and nannies. For some busy couples, another alternative to juggling the busy childhood years may be one partner taking an extended leave of absence. Other physicians, however—including Rachel—prefer handling the day-to-day packed schedule for the short-term rather than risk losing workplace skills. A family physician might also have the option to transition to urgent care or to “float” in different hospitals if working in a system, providing an even more flexible schedule.

Speaking a common language
A couple’s daily interactions play a big role in a relationship’s success, and Rachel notes that Dan also being a physician has enriched their relationship beyond measure. It gives them something to talk about every day, allows them to understand each other and ultimately brings them closer, which is vital when stress comes into their family life.

According to Dan, one of the best things about being married to a fellow medical professional is how intellectually satisfying their conversations are. The Bennetts discuss difficult cases, call each other for advice about cases that are outside of their respective specialties and are able to celebrate the joys and commiserate about the difficulties of practicing medicine. Dan says feeling like a team—especially a team with two different specialties—is a huge positive and that Rachel being a family physician has broadened his view of medicine outside his specialty.

Despite the stresses that come from both partners being in the ever-busy medical field, there are huge benefits that can help keep these couples together. With any two-profession family, finding balance is important, and working together toward that balance can create a stronger bond.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Wisconsin Medical Society, Wisconsin Medial Society Holdings Corporation or its subsidiaries. Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal, financial or clinical advice.

Clyde “Bud” Chumbley, MD, MBA

Doctor Chumbley, the chief medical advisor for Wisconsin Medical Society Holdings, is a seasoned physician executive with 24 years of experience in complex multispecialty medical groups and integrated health care delivery systems. As a practicing OB/GYN and management consultant, he has worked for some of the largest health systems in the country, including Aspirus Network and Baylor Health Care System. He also has held leadership positions for organizations including the American Medical Association Regional Policy Board and the Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality.

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