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The growing female physician workforce - Summer 2015
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By Gayle Bennett, Freelance Writer, Washington, DC

In 2013, 32 percent of the physician workforce was female, according to the most recent data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). However, that number appears poised to take a leap forward very soon. That’s because AAMC data also show that 47 percent of current medical students are women, as are 46 percent of residents. Eliza Chin, MD, executive director of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), which advocates for gender equity in medicine, has been eagerly awaiting this bump, “For about eight years or so we’ve been at close to 50 percent of female medical students,” Chin says. “Four years of medical school, three to five years in a residency, maybe a fellowship.” Given that, she would expect the percentage of female physicians to rise above one-third right about now.

As women physicians start to make up a larger portion of the medical field, will the work practices start to change? Time will tell. Four women, at varying points in their careers, provide an inside view into where women in medicine have been and where they are poised to go.

A trailblazer and mentor

Omega C. Logan Silva, MD, now retired, was assistant chief of the metabolic section and chief of the diabetic clinic at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC. When Silva earned her medical degree in 1967, female doctors were a rare breed, and female physicians in leadership positions were even more uncommon. She spent her career trying to change that, serving as a mentor to many female physicians.

Silva shares her advice for women entering the medical profession with aspirations for leadership, “When you go to a private office, academic office or government office, find out what the requirements are to go to the next step. And you do that immediately when you come in.” She continues, “Don’t wait until you think you should be ready to go on to that next step.”

She also notes the importance of picking mentors who will help you succeed. “I had lots of good women and men mentors in my career,” Silva says. One male mentor was always happy to write recommendations for her, such as the one he wrote for her mastership in the American College of Physicians.

Mid-career with more options

Norma Jo Waxman got her MD in 1991 and taught in the family medicine residency program at the University of California, San Francisco, for about 13 years. In 2011, she left to join a private family medicine group at a San Francisco hospital. However, as a single mother of two pre-teens, she needed to step back from the demands of the very busy practice. “I started out thinking that I would be able to have more time and control of my life [in private practice],” Waxman says. “And it wound up that I had no time, working to 9 and 10 at night.”

So Waxman took a sabbatical last summer and has been doing telemedicine and working for a company that provides house calls via an app. She’s now being recruited to work part-time at a primary care clinic at a nearby VA facility, which she’s seriously considering. “It’s flattering to be recruited,” she says.

Just starting out

Kellie Stecher, an ob/gyn in Maple Grove, MN, and Karina Henriquez, a sleep medicine doctor at Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital Sleep Center in Lewistown, PA, are both two years out of their residencies and fellowships.

Stecher, who works at an ob/gyn clinic, was drawn to the field after her first delivery in medical school. “I don’t think in any other field of medicine you do something more amazing,” she says. “You get to be there with people during the most critical, important time in their life.”

Henriquez graduated from medical school in her home country of the Dominican Republic in 2000 and completed her residency there. But then she decided to move to the United States to practice medicine, so she had to repeat her residency here and then completed a sleep medicine fellowship with the Cleveland Clinic. “When I was in the Dominican Republic, I was interested in sleep, and when I came to the United States, I realized that I could be a sleep doctor,” she says. “We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, and some people don’t think it’s important, but the quality of your sleep can change the quality of your life.”

Both Stecher and Henriquez knew they wanted to be doctors when they were young children. They excelled at math and science early on, which paved the way to medical school. Henriquez says, “In my country, they push the men to be doctors and lawyers and to be better in science and math, but why? We have the same brain, we have to have the same opportunity.”

Advice for recruiters

According to an article in the May 2013 AAMC Reporter, work-life balance is a big issue for this new generation of doctors, regardless of gender. Stecher’s husband stays home with their two children, but she still wants to be with her young family. “We don’t want to be at work all day, every day if we have a very young family or if we are planning to have kids,” Stecher says. “I think recruiters could be an advocate for their female physicians in terms of making sure they will have weekends off, will be able to go home or they are in a comfortable environment for their families.”

Chin notes that some practices are starting to offer shared jobs or will allow women to transition to different roles as they become mothers. “Some women want to work part-time, so they need to understand the landscape for the potential for part-time work,” Chin says. “How much support there is, the on-call schedule and the support of other colleagues are important things for doctors to know from recruiters,” she says.

Stecher continues, “I think the next generation of physicians is prioritizing family and career and not just career. Making sure that those issues are addressed in the recruitment process will certainly make people happier in the long run. If they aren’t addressed before job placement, and that’s important to them, they might leave the job that they are placed with.”

Data sources:

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