February 3 is National Women Physician Day. 

This day marks the 196th birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in America. Although her father was strongly supportive of her choice to pursue a higher education, Dr. Blackwell found herself frequently filled with doubts and loneliness around her choice to pursue a medical degree in a field that was completely male at that time. Since accepting a female into medical school was unprecedented, the administrators were unsure of allowing her entry, but her male medical student classmates were unanimously in support of accepting her into their class. Dr. Blackwell was a pioneer in many ways, particularly in promoting educational opportunities for all people regardless of gender or race. She was seen as a dominant person with true leadership capabilities, and her ability to overcome multiple hurdles in attaining her medical degree paved the way for female students of today to pursue their own dreams of becoming physicians. 

But gender inequality in the medical field still persists. We’ve all been there – I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been referred to as Ms. or simply Aparna instead of Doctor…which irks me, particularly when I am standing amongst all my male colleagues who are easily and respectfully referred to as Dr. So-and-So. Or the times I’ve been mistaken for the support staff and asked when the doctor would be arriving. 

Further, female physicians continue to earn approximately eight percent less on average than their male peers. They are also half as likely to be promoted to academic rank of professor when compared to their male colleagues. Further, patients report that their female physicians tend to be more encouraging and communicate in a way that feels therapeutic and effective.

In addition to the rigorous demands of their fields, many female physicians have the additional demands of marriage and motherhood. Female physicians, particularly in the surgical field, continue to report that their colleagues and administrators have negative attitudes towards their childbearing while practicing medicine, particularly when they are in the residency or medical school phases of their careers. However, the data indicates that these women typically attain levels of academic achievement equal to their non-childbearing peers during their training. 

The landscape of medicine has changed drastically since the time of Dr. Blackwell. Female physicians comprise over a third of the physician work force, and medical student classes are approximately half female. Female physicians today are pursuing degrees in each and every subspeciality, although they are represented more in some.  According to the AMA, family medicine is 58% female, psychiatry is 57% female, pediatrics is 75% female and OBGYN is 85% female. The data suggests that, when compared to their male colleagues, female physicians have some unique strengths that they bring to the field. For example, a recent study conducted by Harvard researchers showed that patients treated by female physicians had significantly lower mortality rates and lower readmission rates than did the patients cared for by their male colleagues. There is also data that suggests that female physicians spend more time with their patients and may be better at adhering to clinical practice guidelines, particularly in the realm of preventative medicine.

Sometimes it can feel like we are being stretched too thin and overwhelmed by the enormous responsibilities of working in modern medicine. There are far too many days of stress, panic, doubt, questioning if it was worth it. But today, dear colleague, is your day to remember how far you’ve come, how far we’ve come as community of strong female physicians, and just how far you can go. And you can go far. If you ever doubt it, just look back at Elizabeth Blackwell and know that it’s been done before. 

Editor’s Note: Check out this page celebrating National Women Physicians Day, brought to you by Medelita and Physician Mom Group!  There you can read more about the history of the day and find great resources for how to make the most of it!