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Women in Medicine: How Female Doctors Have Changed the Face of Medicine

Despite the variety of challenges that women in medicine have faced, today’s female physicians continue to inspire and save lives every day


According to the AMA website, in 1970 fewer than eight percent of physicians in the United States were women. According to the 2011 Physician Characteristics and Distribution study, by 2009 that percentage had increased to thirty, and the number of female doctors had grown by more than six fold. Women have made and continue to make vast progress in the field of medicine, and there have been many exceptional female doctors whose accomplishments deserve to be celebrated.

In “Woman as Physician,” H.B. Elliot describes the story of Elizabeth Blackwell: as the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree, she was one of those doctors. When Dr. Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849, it would still be seventy years before women would be allowed to vote and 120 before women’s admission to Yale College.  At the time, the Blackwells and other Quakers were some of the few people who believed in the equality of men and women. Indeed, when Geneva Medical College considered Dr. Blackwell’s application, the faculty asked the students to vote on her admission, with the condition that if one student objected they would not admit her. The students thought the entire issue was a joke and sent a facetious letter urging her acceptance. Even after earning her degree, Dr. Blackwell was banned from practice in most hospitals. Undeterred, in 1857 she and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska founded their own infirmary in New York. Later, during the Civil War, Dr. Blackwell trained many women to be nurses, and she eventually added a Women’s Medical College to her infirmary in order to train other female physicians.

Pioneering women like Elizabeth Blackwell created opportunities for future female physicians, many of whom have progressed to the forefront of their fields. The National Library of Medicine website describes some of these accomplishments: Dr. Virginia Apgar, a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, designed the first standardized method for assessing the health of a newborn.

Dr. Helen Taussig pioneered a cardiac operation that led to the development of open heart surgery and, along with Dr. Frances Kelsey, successfully prevented the FDA from approving thalidomide for morning sickness. Dr. Irene Ferrer helped develop the cardiac catheter. Dr. Marilyn Gaston’s research on sickle-cell disease led to nationwide screenings. Both the number of female physicians and their contributions have made huge advances in the past several decades, and today female doctors continue to make an important impact on the medical community.

While, according to the AAMC website, the percentage of women holding tenured professorships at medical schools has now reached 35% and the percentage of female medical students has grown to 47.9%, women in medicine still face a number of challenges. In 2008, for instance, Brian McKinstry, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, published an article in the British Medical Journal entitled “Are There Too Many Female Medical Graduates? Yes.” In it, McKinstry argues that female doctors work part time more often and are less likely to participate in research.

However, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine "Women in Academic Medicine" indicated that “it is possible for women to combine motherhood with a fulfilling career in academic medicine” and found that 83% of female doctors return to work just 12 weeks after childbirth. The article explains that other researchers have found more subtle differences in the care practices of male and female physicians. For instance, female physicians spend an average of two minutes longer per medical visit than male physicians and engage in more patient centered communication.

However, according to an article by Debra Roter and colleagues "Physician Gender Effects in Medical Communication", no significant gender-based differences were found in terms of the quality, amount, or manner of providing biomedical information during the visit. In addition, medical schools themselves have radically changed since the days of Elizabeth Blackwell.

According to its website, Yale’s School of Medicine, for instance, addresses gender prejudices through its Office for Women in Medicine, which provides mentorship, workshops, and discussions to “promote the academic growth of women in medicine.”

Although the overall presence of female doctors has increased rapidly, there are still some specialties where women are significantly underrepresented. For example, according to an article by Burke and colleagues "Gender Disparity in the Practice of Gastroenterology: The First 5 Years of a Career", women only hold 16% of gastroenterology (GI) fellowship positions. In an interview, Dr. Sabine Solika Hazan explains that when she was deciding which specialty to pursue, a more senior doctor told her not to apply to become a gastroenterologist because women weren’t accepted. Though Dr. Hazan did ultimately specialize in gastroenterology, even as an established practitioner she still feels the pressures of “the old stigma that women cannot do technical procedures.” She noted that even other health care professionals are more resistant to taking orders from or respecting female doctors. Though these factors can make it more difficult to survive as an independent female practitioner, Dr. Hazan’s prognosis for female physicians in her field is optimistic: “I think things are changing as more women want to be GI doctors[…the] public view of female doctors is changing, and the number of woman leaders in the field is increasing.”

To be sure, despite the variety of challenges that women in medicine have faced, today’s female physicians continue to inspire and save lives every day. The outlook for the future of women in medicine is even more encouraging: as the percentage of women entering medical school rises, it seems likely that female physicians will have opportunities to impact the medical community in ways Elizabeth Blackwell could not have imagined.

Source: The Yale Journal of Medicine & Law Vol. VIII, Issue 2

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