#24 Goin’ to school with this sweet child o’ mine

Episode host:

Lara Varpio

Episode article

Mulholland, M. R., & Gulliver, L. S. M. (2023). Support of parenting in undergraduate medical training in New Zealand. Medical Teacher, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159X.2023.2249210

In this episode, the hosts examine the experience of medical students who either matriculate as parents, or who become parents during their undergraduate medical training. Have we supported those learners, or have we left them to fend for themselves?

Background

Becoming a parent is a hard, exhausting, and wonderful experience for which we are all utterly unprepared. Becoming a parent is like jumping off a cliff with no idea where the bottom of the cliff is nor what awaits you at the bottom. There is nothing to prepare you for what awaits.

More and more medical students are becoming parents while they are in medical school. Talk about jumping off a cliff! All of medical school’s work demands, concentration requirements, time demands and emotional work, and then add to that the cliff-jumping experience of becoming a parent. Mind. Blown.

Once upon a time, in an era long behind us, parenting in medical school wasn’t as noteworthy a problem for many students because—back then—medical school was for men. If there were children to parent, a women stayed home to tend to the kids. For those men, it was surely still a leap of faith off the cliff, but at least there was some kind of infrastructure support. Some kind of backup was in place.

That era is long gone. Today, parenting is a completely different phenomena. Today, parenting is work that is more equally divided between parents. All that to say: parenting during medical school is a phenomenon that is really different today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. But, problematically, we haven’t adjusted our thinking about parenting as a medical student. What help do those parents need? How are we supporting them? Or are we ignoring them?

The paper I selected today addresses these questions in the New Zealand context. The study aimed “to capture the student and coal-face staff perspectives in determining what medial schools may need to do to support all student parents to complete their degrees.”

Method

This study had 3 parts. First, the two medical schools in New Zealand have a collaborative longitudinal study running involving medical students and graduates called the Medical students’ outcome data and longitudinal tracking project (MSOD for short). MSOD collects data at entry into medical school, at graduation, and then at the end of graduate training years 1, 3, 5 and 8. The survey captures a variety of demographic data including information about medical students as parents—if they were parents before starting med school or if they became parents during med school. These data were analyzed against  other trends that could indirectly indicate if the current supports provided to medical student parents is effective — such as time taken to complete the degree.

Second, the researcher recruited students and staff for another survey, targeting the student parents. The survey was specifically about the needs of medical student parents, how those needs were being met, and how accessible those supports were.

Third, the authors did a scoping review of all the supports that were available to those medical students. They sought out those supports via known pathways (so things like the student affairs office) and via the internet (so they searched for them on the internet — like any medical student might do if they didn’t know what supports were available)

Results/Findings

The large longitudinal survey found that a small but consistent number of medical students were already parents when they enrolled or become parents during their medial school education. Importantly, the data show that both male and female students are parents — that this is NOT a female student problem. And the data suggest that medical student parents are taking longer to complete their degrees.

When we look at the survey sent to medical student parents and faculty, we get some interesting but probably not surprising data. 67% of the medical student parents said there was no support provided or that they lacked knowledge of available support. How did student find out about the support available? The survey says through word of mouth. 44% of the students said that was the only way they learned of support. This is interesting when we contrast it with what faculty said — 47% of the faculty thought students found out about available support through official channels. Students reported that the most helpful support came from individual staff members. Notably, the differences between the rankings of these populations is striking. The effectiveness of support? Students gave effectiveness a score of 3/5, while faulty gave it a 4/5. For organization, students said 2/5, faculty said 4/5. For attitude? Student said 2/5, faculty 4.5/5.

The only other point to highlight is that, until 2017, there was no formal policy or written documentation that specifically addressed the supports available for student parents. In 2019, in response to early data from this study, that started to change.

Comments

This study is emblematic; if you conducted this same study at pretty much ANY medical school, you’d have similar results. Medical student parents need help, and we’re not offering it.

We should not be ignoring this population. It is growing. And it is not just a “mom” problem. Medical students of all genders are increasingly becoming parents. And we need to help. Let’s help these learners as they take the leap off the cliff into parenting. It is a hard enough leap as it is. We don’t need to make that cliff even higher.

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