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On Feb. 3, citizens all over America celebrated National Women Physicians Day, which falls on the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first licensed female doctor in America in 1849.
In her mid-20s, Blackwell was deeply affected by a close friend of hers who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and felt embarrassed about going to male doctors. Blackwell later decided to pursue a career in medicine, and in 1847 she was accepted to Geneva Medical College in Upstate New York to make that dream a reality. However, she faced significant backlash: Her fellow students believed she was admitted as a prank and were furious she had been allowed to attend in the first place.
Blackwell studied rigorously during her medical school tenure despite being talked down to by patients and fellow doctors alike, and in 1849 she completed her doctoral thesis on typhus fever and graduated first in her class, becoming the first woman in the United States to attain a medical degree.
Today, women are reinventing their role in medicine. According to a 2017 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the number of women enrolled in medical school has now exceeded the number of men. Females accounted for 50.7% of 21,338 students in 2017, compared to 2016’s statistic of 49.8%.
Women also dominate certain aspects of the medical field, but lack in others. For example, according to a 2019 study by the American Medical Association, the top fields for women in medicine included obstetrics and gynecology (83.4%), allergy and immunology (73.5%) and pediatrics (72.1%). Men, on the other hand, dominated the fields of orthopedic surgery (84.6%), neurological surgery (82.5%) and interventional radiology (80.8%). Gender balance among medical residents was most prominent in the fields of sleep medicine, preventive medicine, pathology and psychiatry.
Despite these significant advancements, women still face challenges establishing their role in the medical field. In October, the Association of American Medical Colleges published an article detailing the burnout women face very early in their career from balancing work or studies with family, which results in almost 40% of women going part-time or leaving medicine entirely within six years of completing their residencies.
“When you invest more than a decade of your life to learn a skill and you’re willing to walk away from that early in your career, that’s more than a red flag. It’s a burning fire,” Sasha Shillcutt, physician and founder of Brave Enough, an organization aimed at empowering female doctors, told the AAMC last year.
It is often significantly more difficult for women to balance the demands of work and their home lives, especially when pregnancy and children are involved. A 2014 study revealed that women spend on average 8.5 hours more a week on domestic activities than their male counterparts do. Women were also more likely to take time off during issues with child care arrangements than their male partners.
Despite these issues, women still tend to perform better in their fields than men. A February 2017 study revealed patients treated by female doctors experienced lower mortality rates and readmission rates than those treated by male doctors (11.07% vs. 11.49% and 15.02% vs. 15.57%, respectively).
In 2017, Northeastern University professor Timothy Hoff published an article in Medical Economics describing how women who enter the medical field often soon understand they are at a disadvantage, not because of their skills or training, but because of their sex.
“In my research, I have spoken to many young female doctors who realize during their training and early career that despite having earned their way into the most competitive profession on Earth, they still will likely encounter a fair number of colleagues, employers, and customers that treat them like second-class citizens,” Hoff wrote. “For some, this realization starts at the very outset of their careers to drive negative perceptions of their chosen profession as well as producing higher rates of negative psychological states like depression.”
Besides gender bias, women also face less-obvious obstacles in medicine, such as how they are addressed in the workplace by fellow doctors and patients alike. Many women in medicine are called “sweetie” or “Mrs.,” and this seemingly benign terminology can be problematic.
According to a study in the Journal of Women’s Health, “To address a female physician as ‘Mrs.,’ even if she is married, is to imply that despite all her professional accomplishments, her worth is reduced to her marital status. It ignores all the hard work that went into earning the title of ‘Doctor,’ and denotes, whether intentional or not, that a female physician is somehow less deserving of the title than a male physician.”
Though there is still much work to do in acknowledging the value of women in medicine, it is clear that women have revolutionized the industry and are making a new legacy for themselves through the patients they treat as well as their footprints elsewhere. Take the Tik Tok “Hype Hospital,” for example, which is a play on the “Hype House,” a group of viral teenagers who make dance videos in their mansion in Encino, California. The physicians involved in the Hype Hospital include Dr. Magnolia Printz, Dr. Jessica Andrade and several other female and male doctors of all specialities.
The group has virtually revolutionized modern medicine communication while maintaining the human side of their lives. Dr. Printz, for example, publishes short clips about how her anesthesiology practice functions as well as videos about her residency experiences and how to balance work life with a family. Dr. Andrade, who is in her second year of pediatric residency, publishes similar content as well as motivational videos about how she pushed through the majority of medical school despite people doubting her and telling her she could never do it.
These two women only represent a small fraction of the amazing female doctors around the United States and the world who not only save lives and make meaningful connections, but pass their wisdom on to future doctors and those who are exasperated about learning the practice of medicine. It is time we acknowledge these powerful women and the legacy they leave on the ever growing field of medicine.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @anikolleshi from Unsplash.com.
Taylor Harton is the associate news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.