September 23, 2011

The first woman who was formally academically trained as a physician in the United States was Elizabeth Blackwell, who graduated at the top of her class in 1849. In 2000, women represented 22.8% of U.S. physicians, and this is increasing, as women now enroll in medical schools at the same rate as men. Currently, during college, biology, chemistry, and physics classes are required as part of a “premed” curriculum. Medical school is 4 years long at present. Medical school combines classroom learning (including learning about normal physiology, anatomy, and abnormal pathology) and “rotations.” Rotations occur in health care settings, such as hospitals and clinics, so that students can both observe physicians and learn experientially. More than 40% of medical students in the United States are currently women, which has been consistent with increases in female applicants. Some medical schools offer MD/PhD programs, which confer a dual degree on their graduates, preparing them to be both clinicians and researchers. Other medical schools offer DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) programs, with a holistic approach to medicine. During and after medical school, national standardized examinations, called USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Exams), are taken in addition to any exams in the medical school itself, to establish a standard for practicing doctors.

“Residency” is the physician training that occurs after medical school graduation, in the new doctor’s choice of a generalist (primary care) or specialty field. Primary care physicians include pediatricians, family doctors, and general internists. Specialties include such diverse fields as psychiatry, ophthalmology, and surgery, among others. Based upon the chosen specialty, residencies are of different lengths, usually ranging from 3 to 5 years. The highest percentages of women residents can be found in OB/GYN (67%) and pediatrics (65%), caring for other women and children. Fields such as cardiology and surgery are still dominated by men. During medical school and training, doctors-in-training often work long hours, though this is currently undergoing change on a national level. Different medical specialties have various certification national procedures, including a written examination in that specialty and possibly an oral examination. “Chief residency” is a coveted position of authority at the senior resident level, which is an honor, as well as being a significant additional commitment. After residency, the physician may pursue a fellowship.

Fellowships are additional training in “subspecialties,” such as colorectal surgery or forensic psychiatry, to gain additional expertise.

Physicians evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients, usually as part of a “treatment team” in which members of various professions collaborate (e.g., nurses, social workers, and physical therapists). Physicians may focus on inpatient (hospital-based) or outpatient care, or a combination. In addition to treating diseases, doctors practice “preventive health care” that may include Pap smears (to detect early cervical cancer) or testing cholesterol levels to decrease arteriosclerosis.

State medical boards grant licenses to physicians to practice. They also ensure that physicians complete required continuing medical education (CME) programs to keep their medical knowledge up to date. Additionally, medical boards keep records on physicians and may be involved in disciplinary action against physicians when needed. State medical boards can be contacted for information about physicians and some have information about physicians available online.

Though increasing numbers of women are entering the profession, medicine is still a male-dominated field. In particular, women are underrepresented in positions of leadership in medicine, including only a small minority of departmental “chairmen” and medical school deans. Due to the more recent entry of women into medicine, younger women entering the profession may experience a lack of more senior women to serve as mentors or role models. Women’s medical societies, such as the American Medical Women’s Association and the Association of Women Psychiatrists, have been founded to address issues faced by women in the profession. At a personal level, the length of training required to be a physician implies that women physicians may spend many of their childbearing years in training. In recent years, increasing numbers of women have surpassed obstacles to become successful physicians, and are paving the way for future generations of women to thrive in the field.

SEE ALSO: History of Women’s Health (pp. 3-13); Women in the Health Professions (pp. 20-32); Blackwell, Elizabeth

Suggested Reading

  • Chin, E. L. (Ed.). (2002). This side of doctoring: Reflections from women in medicine. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (1973). Witches, midwives, and nurses. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press.
  • Friedman, E. (Ed.). (1994). An unfinished revolution: Women and health care in America. New York: United Hospital Fund of New York.
  • Levin, B. (1988). Women and medicine: Pioneers meeting the challenge (2nd ed.). Lincoln, NE: Media.


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