Using gender as sole determinant for a choice of doctor

It happened 25 years ago and I never forgot it. I’d been in the forefront of women’s consciousness-raising; I recognized that women had been professionally downtrodden for years (in certain fields), and hoping to do my part to balance the inequity, I opted for female doctors whenever possible.

But using gender as sole determinant for my choice of doctor would prove to be a huge mistake … as I’d learn.

At the time, my family was up against an armada of medical woes. At 46, my husband battled cancer that had metastasized into the bones. We had two children who were 13 and 3. One navigated the confusing adolescent world while the other toddled about, facing each new day as an adventure. She couldn’t know that life in our family was anything but normal.

I lived a fractured existence, as I raced from full-time teaching at a local junior high to pick up the younger one from her babysitter‘s, then on to school practices, sports events, etc. for the older one. During that period, too, I supported a husband whose medical protocol mandated he receive a 7-day cisplatinum infusion drip, in hospital, once a month. When that happened, I added daily hospital visits to my packed schedule.

After months of this, the family buckled under the stress.

I became ill with pneumonia and my older daughter suffered a terrible upper respiratory infection. Oh, she’d had them in the past but this one mandated I bring her to a specialist skilled in ear, nose, and throat. I selected one on the basis of gender believing she’d handle us with a woman’s sensitivity. I sheepishly admit: That was my sole determinant.

While in the examination room, I shared with the doctor what we were going through: husband terminally ill, months of chemotherapy, me trying to manage. All the while she performed her examination, peering into my daughter’s eyes, ears, and throat, palpating her, listening with her stethoscope, ordering X-rays (to be done then and there). Finally, she left the room.

Several moments later she returned to announce: “I believe your daughter’s got cystic fibrosis. I think she’s had it for years…No one’s picked it up before.”

I sat speechless, knowing nothing more about the disease than the fact charity drives were held in its honor. When I tremulously asked “How do you know?” She answered: “The X-rays … I’ve never seen blockage like hers which leads me to believe it’s far more than a sinus infection.”

Taking her cue from my ashen face, my older daughter haltingly asked, “What’s cystic fibrosis?” The doctor responded: “Look it up in the encyclopedia when you get home.” It was flip and nasty but I never said a word, stunned as I was with her brutal diagnosis.

I asked “What do we do now?” She answered: “A hospital sweat-chloride test will show it definitively.” I gathered my girls and stumbled out, dazed and shaken, with my older one decidedly worried she was next on the terminal list.

The next day I called a doctor who’d been recommended by a friend, one who knew the medical situation we’d been going through, and I begged him for help. He got us in for the test immediately (there was a normal 3-week wait).

In the days ahead, we suffered additional emotional turmoil: My father got books from the library on cystic fibrosis to enlighten us; we called the CF hotline for more advice; we anticipated accelerated health concerns for this daughter as we went forward.

What did we discover? My daughter didn’t have cystic fibrosis, after all. She had a severe sinus infection. And the doctor who diagnosed this awful disease? Well, she doubtless fulfilled her own need that day to be first of her profession to “call” it, when peers allegedly missed it. She was more interested in preening than in getting ‘it’ right.

All this suffering because I mistakenly thought a female doctor would be kinder when my family most needed support. It was an experience whose lesson was never lost on me: I never gender-profiled doctors again.

Today, we’ve got some truly wonderful doctors–male and female. We qualify them by all means other than gender (which is how it always should have been).

And by the way, that doctor never called to check on my daughter. Just lobbed the bomb and walked away, secure in her misguided belief that she occupied a lofty rung on the ladder of professionalism.

Colleen Kelly Mellor blogs from the perspective of a chronic patient at Encouragement in a Difficult World: Biddy Bytes Blog.

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  • ninguem

    My understanding has been that the female physician thing gets women patients in the door.

    But once in the door, satisfaction surveys are equal. Competence, caring, or lack thereof, knows no gender.

  • http://www.MDWhistleblower.blogspot.com Michael Kirsch, MD

    Very moving post. When I was in medical school, the chief of OB-GYN (of XY chromosome) believed that the male interns and residents were more compassionate than were the females. Only one man’s opinion, but interesting.

    • Michelle

      I have heard the same thing from my friend who was a doula in a hospital.

  • Penny

    Actually I too believe male doctors are more compassionate overall, as well as less subject to depression and moodiness. But females are much better listeners and have much better memory recall.

    I bet that if you ask a classroom full of students how many recall their first days of school, most will be women.

  • Michelle

    This is a great piece.

    One of my girlfriends picks male doctors when she’s really bad off. As she puts it, men don’t like to see a woman cry.

  • Medstud4

    Wow, that is terribly disappointing that she can be so insensitive. As an EM resident, I always strive to provide some empathy for all my patients. I do have to say, however, that some specialties draw this personality. The female ENT doc you described fits the personality that i associate the field with.

  • EmilyT

    Are there any anecdotal stories out there from patients who deliberately chose male doctors only to find satisfaction with a female doctor? Otherwise, if one were to base an opinion from the OP and reader comments, the consensus would be that men, intellectually as well as emotionally, are better suited to be physicians.

  • http://www.danspinato.com/ Dan Spinato

    This is a really touching post. I do agree that it’s a terrible mistake to use gender as the basis of selecting doctors, it’s rudely discriminating as well.

    • Penny

      I feel most people choose the sex they are most comfortable with on a day-to-day basis. Or do they? Do most males prefer female doctors? (Possibly not.) It would be so interesting to get more male input here. Answers might be exactly the same as they would be if asked which sex they preferred as “bosses.”

      So if given the choice of two doctors with equal talent, Dan, which would you choose?

  • http://www.biddybytes.com Colleen Kelly Mellor

    Yes, Dan Spinato, I do agree that my former choice of physician was a terribly discriminating one (solely by gender), but having myself been raised in a terribly discriminating family where only the males were important, I came to my choice of ENT specialist understandably; however, I write this post to apprise others so they will not fall into the trap I did and will use weightier means to assess….Many of my doctors today are males and I am most pleased with them.
    …………..Author Colleen Kelly Mellor

    The author…

  • http://www.preemieprimer.com Dr. Jen Gunter

    There are jerky male doctors and jerky female doctors. I have worked with my fair share of both. I don’t think it is fair to generalize based on one interaction. And picking a doctor by their gender is like picking them based on hair color, because being a good person and a good doctor has absolutely nothing to do with your chromosomes.

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