The Rise in Women Doctors and the Female Future of Medicine

In 2019, for the first time, there were more women than men enrolled in U.S. medical schools (50.5%), according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). This headway builds on 2017’s milestone when, for the first time, women comprised the majority of first-year medical students. 

This positive trend shows no signs of slowing down. It is particularly notable in physicians under 35, where 60% are women, while slightly less than 40% are men. In the 35 to 44 year age range, women are also the predominant gender, representing 51.5%. With each older age bracket, the percentage of women physicians decreases. Not surprisingly, 82.4% of physicians over age 65 are men.

Shortage of Medical Workers

A 2020 AAMC study predicts a shortfall of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033. The report projects the national population will grow by 10.4% through 2033; however, the over-65 population is expected to grow by 45.1%.

Medical schools have increased class sizes and opened new schools to address this shortage, increasing the total number of enrolled medical students by 33% since 2002. 

From 2018 to 2019, the number of U.S. medical school applicants rose by 1.1%, reaching a record high of 53,371. The sustained growth in the number of applicants is vital as the nation faces a projected shortage. 

The AAMC study was conducted before COVID-19 hit the scene and the pandemic “is likely to have short- and long-term consequences on the nation’s physician workforce” (e.g., class and clinical rotation cancellations, regulatory changes, more telehealth, and changes in medical specialty interests).

Diminished Access to Medical Care

Although the study’s primary focus is on future physician shortages, Americans feel the deficit now. According to 2019 research by Public Opinion Strategies conducted for the AAMC, 35% of those surveyed said they had difficulty finding a doctor in the past two or three years, a 10-point increase from 2015.

Two demographic trends contribute to the projected shortage — an aging population requiring more specialized healthcare and more physicians reaching retirement age. The U.S. needs an increase in the overall supply of doctors and health care professionals to meet our growing medical needs.

The historically male-dominated workforce has been progressing in recent years, but now more than ever, we’re seeing significant momentum for women in the workplace. The previously untapped labor force of women could help to remedy the shortage of medical workers. 

Barriers That Women in Medicine Must Overcome 

While more women are becoming doctors today, gender imbalances remain within the medical field. Many female physicians have heard “No, you shouldn’t,” or, “No, it isn’t possible” while pursuing their careers. 

As early as medical school and residency training, many young doctors who are women realize that despite earning their rightful place in one of the most competitive professions, they still encounter colleagues and employers that treat them as second-class citizens.

There are many barriers that physicians who are women must overcome, including:

Imposter Syndrome

“Impostor syndrome” is experiencing feelings of inadequacy because you don’t feel you have the skills to do your job — this affects women far more than it affects men. The 2019 AAMC study reported imposter syndrome is prevalent in women in health care, and half of women physicians experience “impostorism” that often influences their decision-making in their career.  

Lack of Inclusive Environments and Mentorship

Despite their strength in numbers, women are still highly underrepresented in academic leadership positions, comprising only 37% of full-time academic physicians. 

One reason for this underrepresentation is the lack of quality mentorship for physicians who are women. 

Role models not only provide guidance but also affect promotion rates. Seeing powerful women in visible positions can help attract women of similar caliber and help pave the way for younger professionals as well.

Academic medical institutions must change their approach by promoting equity and inclusion to avoid unconscious bias and retain talented women underrepresented in medicine. 

Meeting Scheduling and Flexibility Needs

Flexibility is one of the chief concerns for women physicians who view time with family and friends and personal time as extremely important. 

The AMA reports that physicians who are women want more options to help them deal with the struggles of balancing work and family responsibilities. A survey of doctors conducted for Women in Medicine found:

  • 97% want the option to have a flexible work schedule;
  • 41% reported their workplace didn’t provide adequate support for managing family responsibilities;
  • 7 in 10 said their workplace lacked adequate childcare options.

However, not every woman is married or wishes to marry and have children, so conventional stereotypes can end up affecting all women in the workforce.

Minimizing Burnout

Studies that break down burnout rates by gender have found that they are significantly higher among women than men. A 2018 survey of 15,000 physicians found a ten-point gap in burnout rates between women and men. Furthermore, women physicians are more likely to take long-term sick leave because they are dissatisfied with their jobs, which is often considered a sign of burnout.

Gender Imbalances in Medical Specialties

In addition to overcoming common barriers, women may also face other gender imbalances. Gender is a significant factor related to which medical specialties residents pursue following graduation.

Female-Dominated Specialties

Data from the AMA and the AAMC indicate women are a larger percentage of residents in:

  • Obstetrics and gynecology83.4%

Obstetrics and gynecology specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the female reproductive system. OB/GYNs provide gynecologic care, perform surgery, manage pregnant women’s labor and delivery, provide oncology treatment and primary health care for women.

  • Allergy and immunology73.5%

Allergy and immunology involve the management of the immune system. These conditions range from very common to very rare and encompass disorders of various systems. Allergy and immunology patients receive treatment for conditions such as asthma, sinus infection, and food allergies, and immune system disorders.

  • Pediatrics72.1%

Pediatrics involves the health and medical care of infants, children, and adolescents — from birth to age 18. Pediatricians manage childrens’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being at every development stage in both sick and healthy patients.

  • Medical genetics and genomics66.7%

Medical genetics and genomics involve the interaction between genes and health. Medical geneticists are trained to evaluate, diagnose, manage, treat and counsel individuals of all ages with hereditary disorders. They use genomic and genetic testing to assist in diagnostic evaluations, implement needed therapeutic interventions, and provide genetic counseling and prevention through the prenatal and preimplantation period.  

  • Hospice and palliative medicine66.3%

Palliative care focuses on symptom management and aims to ease pain and help with other problems if the illness is serious but not life-threatening. It helps people manage the symptoms of long-term illnesses such as cancer, kidney disease, heart failure, or the treatments’ side effects. Palliative care is part of hospice care.

Hospice is for patients who are not expected to recover from their condition and generally have less than six months to live. It’s about easing pain and helping to prepare for the end of life. Patients are often at home, where family members and professional caregivers look after them. But there are also specialized centers for hospice care, and it’s also found in many nursing homes and hospitals.

  • Dermatology60.8%

Dermatology is a medical specialty with both surgical and nonsurgical components. A dermatologist manages diseases related to skin, hair, nails, and various cosmetic problems. They can identify and treat more than 3,000 conditions, including, but not limited to eczema, psoriasis, and skin cancer, among many others.

Male-Dominated Specialties

According to the same study cited above, medical specialties in which men are predominantly represented include:

  • Plastic Surgery 85%

Plastic surgery is a surgical specialty involved with improving a person’s appearance and the reconstruction of facial and body tissue defects caused by illness, trauma, or birth disorders. It restores and improves function, as well as appearance. 

Plastic surgeons can repair or reconstruct any part of the body except the central nervous system. Some of the procedures they do include: 

  • Orthopedic surgery 84.6%

Orthopedic Surgery is concerned with conditions involving the musculoskeletal system. Orthopedic surgeons use surgical and nonsurgical procedures to treat:

  • Musculoskeletal trauma;
  • Spinal diseases;
  • Sports injuries;
  • Degenerative diseases;
  • Infections;
  • Tumors;
  • Congenital disorders.

They are devoted to preventing, diagnosing, and treating disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

  • Neurological surgery82.5%

Neurological surgery or neurosurgery is the operative and non-operative diagnosis, surgical treatment, and rehabilitation of nervous system disorders, including the brain, spinal cord, central and peripheral nervous cerebrovascular system. A neurosurgeon treats adult and pediatric congenital anomalies, trauma, tumors, vascular disorders, infections of the brain or spine, stroke, or degenerative spine diseases. 

  • Interventional radiology (integrated) — 80.8%

Interventional radiology involves performing a variety of imaging procedures to obtain images inside the body. Interventional radiologists use imaging techniques such as: 

  • X-rays;
  • MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging); 
  • Fluoroscopy (X-ray procedure that enables viewing of internal organs in motion);
  • CT scans (computed tomography);
  • Ultrasounds.
  • Thoracic surgery78.2%

Thoracic Surgery is an operation on organs in the chest, including the heart, lungs, and esophagus. Examples include:

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery;
  • Heart transplant;
  • Lung transplant;
  • Removing parts of the lung impacted by cancer.
  • Pain medicine75.3%

Pain medicine involves the prevention of pain, and the evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation of persons in pain. A pain medicine physician specializes in diagnosing, treating, and managing pain and a range of disorders. He or she cares for the health needs of people with acute pain, chronic pain, and cancer pain. Due to the complexity, these doctors specialize in both physical and mental aspects.

  • Radiology73.2%

Radiology uses medical imaging technology to diagnose and treat diseases in humans and animals. Radiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating injuries and diseases using medical imaging procedures such as:

  • X-rays;
  • Computed tomography (CT);
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI);
  • Nuclear medicine; 
  • Positron emission tomography (PET); 
  • Ultrasound.

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