By G. M. Zlupko, MD
The image of the physician has changed greatly over the last half-century. Primarily a male bastion it has become increasingly influenced by women. Fully one-third of the physicians in America today are women. They account for 61% of the pediatricians and 51% of the obstetricians/gynecologists. The first women physician in America was Elizabeth Blackwell who graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849. Traditional specialties for women were limited to general practice and obstetrics but now include all specialties including ones previously held firmly by men such as urology and orthopedics.
Women have brought a new look and thought process to medicine. One of the most obvious ones involves their role not only as a physician but as a wife and mother. These sometimes conflicting responsibilities can create stress above and beyond the ones that a physician experiences in daily practice. Early on a large number of female physicians left the practice of medicine within 7 years of their training many not returning. The role of anticipated lifestyle was generally not considered strongly until the presence of significant numbers of women in medicine. The need to balance family and medicine has now translated into a concern for male physicians as well. Women currently work fewer hours than their male counterparts but evidence increasingly indicates that younger physicians, regardless of gender, are working fewer hours. The need for a more 9-5 practice style has led many female and male physicians to embrace the hired physician model popular with most health systems.
It should be obvious that the entry of women into the medical workplace not just in supportive positions such as nursing but at the helm of the medical team evaluating and treating patients has made a significant difference in how patients accept and perceive medical care. In some cases patients, particularly male patients are reluctant to discuss their more sensitive medical issues with a female physician. This attitude is changing but still represents a hurdle. However, the need for more health care by an aging population and the shortage of well-trained physicians is closing the gender gap. Women fall short of men in academic positions and are less likely than men to have full-time medical school professorships. Two-thirds of the black applicants to medical school are women but racial and ethnic diversity of physicians does not yet align with the changing population of the US.
The different aptitudes that women bring with them may change the course and effectiveness of medicine in the future. One example of this is the evidence that female physicians seem to be more effective in Preventive Medicine. Hopefully, this will be a model not only for male physicians but male patients as well. Women are much more concerned about preventive care and the influence this may have as a model for male health could be positive.
The work that still needs to be done includes encouraging more women in faculty and leadership positions, being proactive role models for young women and working toward greater diversity among physicians, students, faculty and researchers.