The researchers also found divorce was less common among physicians than lawyers, who are comparable to physicians in income and education. Only pharmacists had lower rates.
"If you talk to physicians, there seems to be this conception or notion that doctors are more likely to be divorced, not only more than other health-care professionals, but the population at large," said the study's senior author, Anupam Jena, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Indeed, non-health-care workers and non-lawyers were more likely to have been divorced or become divorced.
Some previous studies looked into the married life of doctors, according to Jena, but none used "big data" to explore the prevalence of divorce among such a large, national sample.
His team's findings also show divorce to be more likely for female doctors than male doctors. Jena said one possible explanation is that women physicians are forced to make more work-life balance choices.
"Females traditionally bear more of the household and child-rearing responsibilities on average, and female physicians, if they have to do both that and maintain a job as a physician, that could lead to a lot of stress and lead to higher rates of divorce," Jena said. "For women physicians, they appear to be essentially getting a raw deal because there is a trade-off they have to make, that unfortunately the male doctors don't have to be making."
The study authors found that divorce was more likely for women who worked longer hours, but the reverse was true of male physicians.
For the study, researchers looked at the American Community Survey, which provides demographic estimates for the United States, and responses to questions about whether doctors had ever been divorced or were currently divorced. Researchers also controlled for factors such as age and income.
They analyzed a group of about 250,000 physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses and health-care executives. They also looked at about 59,000 lawyers and 6.3 million non-health-care professionals. The researchers considered that some professionals, such as doctors, marry later in life, which could reduce divorce rates because they had fewer years of marriage.
Physicians had a 24 percent likelihood of divorce; it was 23 percent for pharmacists; 25 percent for dentists; 31 percent for health-care executives; 33 percent among nurses; 27 percent among lawyers; and 35 percent for non-health-care workers.
Previous studies have found a difference in divorce rate among doctors depending on their specialties. A 1997 study from Johns Hopkins examined a group of the institution's medical school graduates over a few decades and found those who specialized in psychiatry and surgery were more likely to be divorced.
Jena said the new findings should reassure those entering the medical field, but raise questions about how well female doctors are supported.
"If you're a doctor, don't worry about high divorce rates overall because of the stress of the job," he said. "But if you're a female doctor, it's certainly something to be cognizant about, that there is this tension between work-life balance that isn't there for men."