Divorce and the doctor Study: That surgeons and psychiatrists have highest rates is no surprise to many in the field of medicine. Others want a second opinion.

March 13, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Dr. Bruce L. Rollman was single when he began studying divorce rates among physicians, but married by the time he concluded the research.

"So I was anxiously following this issue," says Rollman, lead author of "Medical Specialty and the Incidence of Divorce," published in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

He -- and his wife -- can be reassured by the findings: Internists such as Rollman have among the lowest rates of divorce in the profession. Almost as low (the difference is not statistically significant, Rollman quickly notes) as those apparently happily married pediatricians and pathologists. And way on the other side of the spectrum from those divorce-prone psychiatrists and surgeons.

The study, which traced the marital ups and downs of more than 1,100 graduates of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has been quite the buzz in physician circles.

"My husband said, 'Did you hear about this?' " said Dr. Jill Berkowitz, a Pikesville-based psychiatrist (50 percent divorce rate) who has long been married to a pediatrician (22 percent). "I was astonished."

"My husband pointed it out to me," said Dr. Dorothy Rosenthal, a Hopkins pathologist (22 percent) who is divorced from a surgeon (33 percent) and now married to a civilian.

The study confirms some long-held stereotypes within the medical profession -- those brusque surgeons, those liberal psychiatrists; those cuddly pediatricians.

"Oh," Rollman coos, echoing the common refrain, "pediatricians are soooo nice."

As a matter of fact, we are, says Dr. Lawrence Pakula, who practices in Timonium.

"I think it's probably the nature of the beast," he says modestly of his ilk. "Pediatricians basically try to be warm and friendly. In our practice, we try to have long-term relationships, with families and the patient."

Pakula could be the poster boy of this study, which looked at other correlating factors to marriage and divorce. He married after graduating from medical school (23 percent divorce rate vs. 33 percent for whose who couldn't wait). And his 1957 wedding date places him in a group with a 17 percent divorce rate, compared to, for example, a 24 percent rate for those who married between 1958 to 1962. Pakula and his wife will celebrate their 40th anniversary in June.

When asked to guess which specialty had the highest divorce rate, most physicians said surgeons, who actually had the second highest rate.

"Surgeons are never home," said Dr. Nada Stotland, chairman of psychiatry at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. "They're abused in their training, it's extremely hierarchical, they're used to giving orders and having them unquestioningly obeyed. Not all spouses are into being surgical nurses."

What to make of all this? Should you start looking for love in the hospital morgue? (" 'Quincy' did us in," Rosenthal declares. "We're not body snatchers. I know it sounds weird, pathologists are at the wrong end of the patient, but we're gentle, considerate people.") And who should psychiatrists go to for marital counseling? Surely not other psychiatrists!

"The stereotypes about the different specialties are not entirely accurate," protests Dr. Malkah Notman, a Harvard psychiatrist and head of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on physician health. "And with divorce rates, it's hard to know if a low one is a plus or a minus."

Indeed, Rollman agrees that it was impossible to tell if the physicians who stayed married were happy in those marriages or, for example, unwilling to end them for financial or social-status reasons.

Rollman, who is currently a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, worked on the study during a fellowship at Hopkins. Among his co-authors is Dr. Michael J. Klag, a Hopkins associate professor of medicine.

The study was based on a group known as The Johns Hopkins Precursors Study, men and women who attended the med school from 1944 through 1960 and have been followed over the years by researchers. Because their medical school careers date back a couple of decades, they're not reflective of the physician population at large: Only 8 percent of the subjects in the divorce study, for example, are women, while current medical school admissions are about 50-50, Rollman says. There are no African-American physicians in the divorce study, and only 2 percent are Asians.

Still, Rollman believes the study should alert the various specialties to the risk their chosen field may pose to their marriages. "If you're in a high-risk field, and you think there may be a problem in your marriage," he says, "maybe you should consider going for help sooner rather than later."

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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