Growing number of female doctors changing medical profession

By John Dorschner Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) As a first-year medical student, Deborah Newcomb is unusual in a couple of ways: No. 1: She’s 40. No. 2: She’s already an accomplished professional, having directed the Northern Ohio Cello Choir before deciding on a rather massive career switch. But she is not unusual because she’s a woman seeking to become a doctor. More than half her classmates at the University of Miami School of Medicine _ 80 of 147 _ are female. In fact, across the nation, that’s the trend: Growing numbers of women are entering medical school. Today, 25 percent of doctors are women, up from 7.6 percent in 1970. By 2010, women are expected to form 33 percent of the profession. Many patients and health-care experts are happy to see the change, especially since scientific studies have repeatedly found that female physicians tend to spend more time with patients, listen more and show more empathy than their male colleagues _ particularly if the patients are members of minority groups. As with other professional women, female doctors earn far less than their male counterparts. But that appears to be changing, as the health-care industry continues to understand that many patients prefer female doctors. According to some polls, however, earning big bucks appears to be less important to female doctors, who are also likelier to advocate radical changes in health care. A survey of members of the American Medical Women’s Association showed that 90 percent favored universal health coverage, something that’s anathema to most members of the male-dominated American Medical Association. The fact is that women are already transforming the practice of medicine. For one thing, because many become mothers during their professional years, they often choose not to work the brutally long hours that males in the industry have traditionally worked. “It really has been an amazing thing,” said Leo B. Twiggs, medical director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Women’s Health. “They have a uterus and have kids and many want flexible working patterns. Vive la difference!” None of these trends mattered to Newcomb, who had a master’s degree in music and was teaching at the University of Akron when her sister was diagnosed with cancer. Newcomb went through the experience with her. “The first doctor was very cryptic,” she recalled. “He seemed cold, chauvinistic, very sarcastic. The second one answered all our questions, was patient and nice, a great surgeon.” Both doctors were male. The experience helped Newcomb realize how crucial a caring physician can be. She started thinking about becoming a doctor. “I didn’t know any women in high school or college who thought of being doctors,” she said. “It just wasn’t done.” In Akron, she took basic science courses that she had skipped during her music education. She liked them and did well. When she sent out applications, seven medical schools accepted her. She is not doing this, she said, for the money. “I’ll be paid pretty good,” she conceded, “but, with the student loans and all the sacrifice including seven years of training, that’s not the reason you do it. I don’t expect to be wealthy, by any means.” So far, she has found med school to be collegial, even in anatomy class, the class where the male students used to try to gross out the female students as they dissected cadavers, according to the memoirs of early female doctors. More than half of modern-day female doctors are employees, according to the AMA, while three in five males are self-employed. Forty-five percent of today’s medical students are female, according to the AMA. After four years of med-school basics, women tend to gravitate toward residencies in the more people-oriented specialties. The Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association (JAMWA) reports that close to two-thirds of residents specializing in pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology are female. In surgery, the number drops to one in five. Experts say there are two reasons for this. First, many women tend to prefer dealing with people in offices rather than with bone and cartilage in operating rooms. A poll of first-year med students, published by the American Psychiatric Press, found that women considered compassion the most important trait they could possess while males tended to select competence. Second, the more complicated specialties, including surgeries, require long periods of training and enormous workloads during the prime child-bearing years. The more primary specialties, however, tend to pay less, which partly explains salary discrepancies. In 1997, the last year for which the Women’s Physicians Congress has numbers, the average salary for a female doctor was $120,000 _ 31.4 percent less than male doctors’ average of $175,000. That’s not much different than the 35.3 percent income disparity reported in 1982. Choosing to be an employee rather than self-employed also can mean less money. Many women sacrifice pay rather than put up with hassles. Even when salaries are adjusted for all these variables, women still get paid less. Two Dartmouth researchers, writing in the JAMWA, measured the incomes of primary-care physicians between ages 36 and 45 and found that women earned only 60 percent to 85 percent as much as their male counterparts from 1989 to 1998 _ not much different from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ finding that women in the United States earn 76 percent of what men earn. The researchers also found, however, that income disparities had decreased 1 percent per year for the decade. And the disparity may be shrinking even faster these days. A report in Physician’s Financial News said that, because many female patients prefer female doctors, particularly for gynecology, some search firms now offer premiums for women. When a male med student posted a notice on an Ob-Gyn Web site about his desire to join the specialty, the head of an Ob-Gyn group warned him not to _ because he was looking to hire only women. Then there’s this: Fleur Sack, a Kendall, Fla., family physician who is president-elect of the Florida Academy of Family Physicians, said she thinks female doctors tend to earn less because “women don’t know what their worth is and how to negotiate.” “I learned this from a headhunter who said women family physicians attract more patients now than male family physicians,” Sack said. “Seldom does a man bring his family to a doctor, so women family physicians are busier now. “This headhunter said women could actually demand a higher salary, if they only understood their worth.” Then there’s the clear evidence that women physicians tend to be more sympathetic to members of minority groups, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine. One study found that male physicians prescribed twice the amount of painkillers for white patients that they did for black patients and that female physicians tended to prescribe more painkillers for blacks than for whites. The institute’s report cited another study, in which many male doctors said there was no disparity between the health care of whites and that of minorities, while female doctors often thought there was. Women doctors, UM’s Twiggs said, seem to be “changing the paradigm of medical care.” ___ ‘copy 2003, The Miami Herald. Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.