Women MDs are Changing Medicine’s Culture

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, July 21, 2009

As our medical schools continue to open their doors to more women than ever, they are also opening the door to change. Now that there are more women than men in the medical education system, I have heard academic colleagues say there is no longer a need for gender-focused school committees, as there are no longer issues about women in medicine. I disagree, and believe that the issues—from getting more women into medicine to supporting them in how they practise medicine—are not resolved, but have evolved.

There is also no doubt that women practise medicine differently than their male colleagues, and that this will affect health care.

The impact of women doctors on the culture of medicine has been investigated over the years. Thirty years ago, Dr. Naomi Bluestone, in an American Journal of Public Health paper, described how women physicians tended to not marry, made less money than their male colleagues, and were not rising in the medical-academic ranks. She also wrote about significant benefits, including their tendency to work better with other women health professionals and being more vocal against prejudices.

Yet, while they were not ready to sacrifice family and outside interests for their careers, they were also not ready to accept a second-class career. In doing so, they caused male colleagues to question their own attitudes and lifestyle choices, and seek similar flexibility.

Ann Boulis and Jerry Jacobs, two American authors, show in their 2008 book The Changing Face of Medicine how women’s roles in medicine are changing at the same time that their roles are changing in contemporary society. Women physicians’ families are becoming more like those of other working women, yet in the profession, there remain gender disparities in terms of specialty, practice ownership, academic rank, leadership roles and opportunity.

Last month, the U.K.’s Royal College of Physicians noted in a study on women in medical schools that the rise in women in medicine—and their preference for work-life balance—may mean some specialties could soon face manpower shortages.

I have personally witnessed the changes wrought by the increase in women doctors over the past 20 years. Women are making patient care friendlier; they are less likely to be sued; they are more likely to go into primary care and serve minority and needier populations; and they are more likely to shoulder the bulk of family and home responsibilities. But they want to balance work and home life, so they work fewer hours than male colleagues and focus less on leadership roles.

This has implications for the workforce, particularly as retirements increase (since the average baby boomer doctor is in his 50s) and will require better human resource planning. In particular, a close look needs to be taken at the specialties unpopular with women, and to see how they can become more female-friendly.

Yet, an increase in women has lead to improvements in medicine, too.

Their burgeoning numbers have made it more acceptable for both men and women to choose a healthy balance between work and home lives. Patients like doctors who are energetic and enjoy their work. Healthy doctors are good role models for patients.

We know that healthy doctors lead to healthier communities.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at mgautam@rogers.com. Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.