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On Health

Today’s women wear many different hats. Some are single working moms, some are married and stay home with their children, and others may be working professionals with or without families. Despite diverse roles and life arrangements, the women of today and of generations past continue to serve as a sort of backbone for their families’ health in various ways.

When pregnant, a woman takes prenatal vitamins, quits smoking and drinking alcohol, and gets appropriate vaccines to reduce risks and pass on health benefits to her child. She may be involved in the care of a sick parent or the health of her partner. In fact, some men who have come to see me in my clinic admit they were nudged by their wives or girlfriends to address medical issues that they themselves have ignored for years.

Though men are more health conscious today than ever before, and there has been a rise in the number of stay-at-home dads and devoted male caregivers, the majority of familial health decisions tend to remain in the hands of women. Even cardiothoracic surgeon and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz has admitted that he has deferred certain health care decisions for their children to his wife, trading his doctor expertise for the “Mister” role at home.

Where do women get health information to help make these decisions? Advice may come from other women in similar situations or via “mommy groups.” And, of course, there’s the Internet. In fact, data from the Pew Internet Research Project found that women are more likely than men to go online to try to figure out a diagnosis.

It’s not easy being a caregiver. But to juggle it with being employed is especially challenging. Because women are more likely to provide care to family members and are more likely do tasks that are more time-intensive and “hands on” (like bathing), there are implications on the economy and on the advancement of women in various fields.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book and recent call for women to “Lean In” at the workplace has merits, but without a supportive infrastructure to lean or depend on, women end up sacrificing jobs, education and careers, rather than climb ladders. Recent research by the American Psychological Association found that among a subset of women engineers who left their field, 17 percent reported leaving due to caregiving responsibilities. Women in the latter parts of their careers also leave the workforce in order to provide help for parents or their grandchildren.

If you’re the health care quarterback for your loved ones, please know that your concern and dedication is invaluable. But it can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Make sure you enlist the help of your siblings as much as possible when caring for elderly parents. And if you take care of grandchildren, try to set a reasonable schedule. While there is probably no better feeling than being there for them, it is much harder to effectively care for others when you’re stretched too thin. Your own health is valuable, too.

Linda Pourmassina, M.D., is an internal-medicine physician who practices at The Polyclinic in Seattle. She has a blog at and can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter @LindaP_MD)