By Mara Antonoff, MD
As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic, the day-to-day work life for us as surgeons continues to evolve. While some professions enable individuals to convert their previous job duties to complete work-from-home settings, the nature of our job requires a certain extent of live interaction. Nonetheless, there are certain aspects of our jobs—particularly in the areas of research and administration—which readily adapt to a home environment, especially given our recent collective gains in knowledge and experience with remote telecommunication applications. Moreover, for many of us and our patients, there are a large number of visit types which are amenable to telemedicine. As a thoracic oncologic surgeon, a large part of my evaluation of patients relies on our discussion and my review of the imaging—neither of which require face-to-face visit.
In recent months, I have heard concerns expressed related to the creep of work into home life. Others have suggested that without a hard stop on the workday or work location, they were finding that work was taking over more and more of their lives. I’d like to argue a different perspective. I believe, as surgeons, we never had hard stops or clear boundaries. We stay scrubbed until the case is done—not after a specified number of hours. We take calls about our patients wherever, whenever. We look at images from kids’ birthday parties, and we text our residents from abroad. As surgeons, we are always thinking about our patients, and the penetrance into our home lives long preceded the pandemic.
Given this precedent, I would argue that the pandemic has actually been a huge opportunity to improve our work-life integration, bringing greater balance. Before I’d ever heard of COVID-19, I spent a lot of hours in the hospital, during which I never saw my 4 kids nor my husband. Between both of us traveling for work and our long hours on the job, family meals were a rarity and I often kissed my kids long after they’d been asleep. The initial wave of the pandemic led to much more time together as a family, when the kids were out of school and our ambulatory practice was cut back substantially; we’ve been back to a new normal for several months—with full clinics, normal operative volume, and all 4 kids in live school—yet we continue to benefit from more family time.
While I have plenty of work to fill 8 days a week, I now work from home for numerous hours per week—in part due to the persistence of virtual visits that occupy half of each of my clinic days. More substantially, every single meeting that I routinely attend has been converted to a virtual environment—tumor boards, research conferences, M&M, committee meetings, mentoring engagements, multidisciplinary collaborations, and more. In addition, it has become very much professionally acceptable to chart notes, to conduct research, and to work on administrative tasks from home—limiting the unnecessary gathering of groups of people in offices, hallways, and elevators. I have found myself working from home—either on telemedicine or tele-meetings—for several hours every day, with my time in the hospital limited to literally just performing operations, seeing clinic patients, and rounding.
With extra time at home, I’m definitely seeing more of my family. This doesn’t mean that I’m playing with my kids instead of working—but it means that I can catch a hug, steal a high-five, or share a snack with family instead of grabbing a coffee alone at work between meetings. I do not take any of this for granted. These changes were not made to improve work-life integration; they were made to enable social distancing and to promote public health. Still, the impact on family has been immense.
As we have learned to navigate virtual telecommunications, so have other aspects of our world. I cannot tell you how much easier it is to attend parent-teacher conferences or student-athlete meetings from my phone in the surgeons’ lounge rather than trying to be there in person. Why did it take a world-wide pandemic to make it possible for working parents to be able to participate in their kids’ lives with greater ease? Why did it take such extremes for us to allow our peers to log in to faculty meetings from the clinic across town, or to be able to attend evening journal club from home after asking their kids about their day at school? And why did it take a public health crisis for us to stop thinking it was unprofessional to write a manuscript from one’s home office?
Truly, I believe that the silver lining of the pandemic has been improved work-life integration, and I will advocate strongly to keep remote options available for our academic, educational, and administrative meetings. As surgeons, we are incredibly fortunate to make an impact in people’s lives and those of their families every single day. We are rewarded with relative job security, praise, and respect. The most important reality is that we could not do these jobs without the support of partners, family, and friends. So, please, let’s not forget the importance of our own family after we have all been vaccinated and life returns to “more normal.” We have the hardware, the software, the telecommunications experience—and we should continue to use it all! I am overwhelmed with gratitude for these recent opportunities to spend more time with my family—and I hope that we can all maintain this level of work-life integration as we head into a more hopeful future.
Dr. Mara Antonoff is a mother of 4 and Associate Professor in Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She is the Website Editor and Social Media Director for Women in Thoracic Surgery. At MD Anderson, Dr. Antonoff is also the Program Director for the Thoracic Surgery Training Program. Her twitter handle is @MaraAntonoff.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.