Physicians at Harvard Medical School who become pregnant during their internship or residency training programs receive few if any paid benefits and little if any maternity leave, according to a new study published recently in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Compared with national statistics, the study found that Harvard's experience "with resident pregnancies does not vary greatly from the national one."

Balancing pregnancy with the rigors of medical training programs is a challenge facing many women, because prime childbearing years coincide with the most demanding and difficult years of training -- internship and residency.

"The pressure is so intense to keep working these long hours," says Dr. Maureen Sayres, coauthor of the study and head of the Harvard Medical School's Office of Parenting. "It's the pressure needed to become a doctor. What we are doing is asking questions about that assumption."

To examine how women physicians juggle the demands of parenthood, Sayres and her colleagues reviewed the effects of pregnancies in 63 residency programs over 10 years at hospitals affiliated with Harvard.

One in eight married female physicians chose to become pregnant during residency and still managed to keep the pregnancy from interfering with the rigors of training, they found. Based on the experiences of 56 women who became pregnant during residency at Harvard, Sayres and her colleagues also report that:

*No woman left a residency program as a result of becoming pregnant.

*Very few pregnant physicians reduced working hours, continuing to put in an average of 95 hours a week.

*Almost two thirds of the women took no time off before giving birth, and all returned to work following pregnancy leave.

*Four out of every five residency programs had no maternity leave policy at all. Those that did allowed an average of two months off, but more than half of the programs failed to meet state requirements for maternity leave.

*Being pregnant rarely affected whether a physician became board-certified in a specialty, such as medicine or surgery.

Sayres and her colleagues said the study suggests that residency schedules should be reevaluated for both sexes. "Men are equally interested in taking leave and in having more flexible schedules," says Sayres.