October 15, 2019 / 8:22 PM / a month ago

Parents in medical research labs missing out on government help with conference travel

(Reuters Health) - Few medical schools allow doctor-scientists with children to take advantage of a government program to help with childcare expenses related to travel to professional meetings, a new study suggests.

“There is a body of research showing there are gender disparities in academic medical leadership positions, grant funding and invitations to speak at conferences,” said the study’s lead author, Cora Ormseth, a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. “A likely driver to explain this disparity is the need for childcare or care of other dependents.”

Ormseth and her colleagues had heard about the federal program, which dates to 2014, that allows scientists traveling to meetings to pay for childcare costs that directly result from that travel, using money from the government grants that fund their research.

Even though that use of funds has been approved by the government, individual institutions need to change their travel rules for researchers to use grant money in that way, Ormseth said.

It didn’t seem like many physician-scientists were taking advantage of the federal program, so Ormseth and her colleagues decided to survey the top medical schools to find out what their rules were.

As reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers made a list of 51 top institutions based on rankings from the National Institutes of Health and US News and World Report. After locating travel policies for those 51 medical schools, Ormseth and her colleagues reached out to the administrators of each school to make sure their interpretation of the policies was correct. One institution declined to participate.

As it turns out, five University of California medical schools (UCLA, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UCSF) had policies that explicitly provide for reimbursement of the full range of dependent care permitted by the US Department of Health and Human Services Regulation (45 CFR 75.474), which states: “Temporary dependent care costs above and beyond regular dependent care that results from travel to conferences is allowable.”

At 32 schools (64%), travel policies either did not reference dependent care or explicitly classified it as non-reimbursable. Policies at the 13 other schools varied widely, the researchers reported. Six schools reported allowing for reimbursement if a physician-scientist provided justification for the departure from institutional policy.

Overall, just 10% of the 50 medical schools surveyed in 2019 had travel policies that implemented the 2014 government regulation.

“Many of the schools didn’t know about the regulation,” Ormseth said. “One said the travel policy needed to be consistent across all funding sources.”

The new study might be the first time many doctor-scientists have heard about the federal policy, said Dr. Annie Im, an assistant professor of medicine in the department of hematology and oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School.

“I had never heard of this federal policy before,” Im said. “It was interesting to see how few institutions had incorporated it into their travel policies. I’m glad this study is bringing awareness.”

The federal regulation may help level the playing field, Im said.

“It’s helpful to know that there is federal support for parents who are in medicine,” Im said. “It speaks to the underlying gender disparity and I think it’s important that the government is willing to address this in some way. It’s not the solution to everything but I think it’s a big step forward.”

SOURCE: bit.ly/35vhriS JAMA Internal Medicine, online October 14, 2019.

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