This past year, women accounted for more than half of the incoming medical students. While this is a strong feat, women have not always had the opportunity to be involved in academic medicine. In the past, medical schools have denied them access to their programs. However, women have overcome history and climbed the ladder into the healthcare spotlight.
All throughout history, women have played a central role in medical care in their towns and villages or even as nuns. They commonly acted as nurses, herbalists, or midwives. However, during the Renaissance period, traditional homeopathic medicine began to be undermined. In response, the European government passed laws stating that, in order to practice medicine, an individual must graduate with medical training from universities. Since women weren’t allowed in universities, the medical field grew to be male-dominated. One exception to this is Laura Bassi, who worked as an appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna.
Nursing in Wartime
Nursing served as a significant inroad into formal medical practice. Florence Nightingale acted as a catalyst that gave women a lot of respect due to their nursing services in the Crimean War (1853-1856). She reorganized nursing in wartime and future hospital design. Her actions promoted nursing as a respectable career, and it became viewed as an extension of a woman’s natural roles in caring nurturing.
While nursing grew to be a major field for women, many had ambitions to become doctors. However, they were not allowed admission to medical schools. To counter this, Margaret Bulkley masqueraded as a male doctor for over 46 years. However, this changed toward the end of the century when women gained the right to attend universities, and, subsequently, practice medicine.
Women in Medicine
In 1897, many women fought for equal opportunities. Elizabeth Blackwell’s name is forever in our history books for paving the way for equality in medicine. When she initially requested admission into medical schools, she received numerous rejection letters that ranged from denying her because they considered her “intellectually inferior” to saying that she posed as a threat to male contingents. However, she eventually gained entrance to Geneva Medical School in New York and became the first American woman to graduate with a medical degree. Through her persistence and hard work, she began the movement to rid the medical community of gender bias.
Many other women followed in Blackwell’s footsteps. In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumbler, MD, became the first African-American women to receive a medical degree. Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD, graduated from medical school in 1889, which made her the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
The number of female physicians has increased drastically in the past century. In 1860, a total of 200 women in the United States practiced medicine. However, most were unlicensed. By the 20th century, approximately 7,000 women practiced medicine. Furthermore, in the past ten years, the number of female physicians has increased by more than 43%. In today’s world, we have more than 376,500 female physicians and more than 42,000 women in medical schools.
Multiple studies looking at the impact of more women in the medical field have found that female physicians are associated with better health outcomes. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that hospitalized elderly patients who treated by female physicians had significantly lower readmission and mortality rates in comparison to those cared for by male physicians. While the reasons remain unclear, some scientists hypothesize that these results occurred because women are generally better at listening and nurturing. Furthermore, others believe that women find more success because they have more emotional intelligence.
In 2016, the specialties dominated by women were Internal medicine, Family Practice medicine, Pediatrics, OB/GYN, Psychiatry, Emergency medicine, Anesthesiology, General Surgery, Diagnostic Radiology, and Dermatology. Female presence in these fields, as well as other fields, offers a new perspective. Additionally, it allows patients more options when looking for healthcare providers.
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Resources: https://www.ama-assn.org/about/women-medicine, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11606-012-2207-1, http://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/713512/faculty-perceptions-gender-discrimination-sexual-harassment-academic-medicine, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/1182859, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2659558, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199610243351706, https://medium.com/thrive-global/bias-bravery-and-burnout-the-journey-of-women-in-medicine-29bcac820822, http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/themes/practisingmedicine/women, https://wire.ama-assn.org/life-career/6-women-awarded-research-gender-bias-medical-training, https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/sharing-the-pain-of-women-in-medicine/?ref=oembed, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/upshot/being-a-doctor-is-hard-its-harder-for-women.html?ref=oembed, https://thedo.osteopathic.org/2018/01/10-stories-women-medicine-national-women-physicians-day-feb-3/
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