February 3rd marks the annual observance of National Women Physicians Day, a special day dedicated to honoring the countless female physicians who have dedicated their lives to the health and well-being of their patients. The holiday was created in response to the fact that although women make up over half of all medical school graduates, they still only make up a small percentage of physicians in practice today. This day is meant to honor the accomplishments of female physicians and recognize their struggles and encourage more women to enter the field.
What is the meaning of February 3rd?
In 2016, President Obama declared February 3rd as a day of celebration to honor the path that women physicians have paved since 1849. This day marks the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive her medical degree in the United States in 1849. During her time in medical training, she faced numerous challenges, being ridiculed, ostracized, and even barred from participating in instruction that her male colleagues received. Regardless, Dr. Blackwell forged ahead and spent her life advocating for gender equality and reform in medicine.
It isn’t just another Hallmark holiday.
It is believed that “Hallmark holidays” were created to make money on days unrelated to cultural or religious events, and it worked…… For example, Mother’s day generates around $30 billion in gross revenue annually. There are many greeting cards, novelty items, and gifts to shower women with love for tackling one of life’s greatest challenges, being a mother.
Women are not being served breakfast in bed on National Woman Physician Day, like Mother’s Day; female physicians are provided with pot-luck lunches and cake. Although many in the past have called into question the meaning of this holiday and how it reflects on women, we should use this day to celebrate the incredible drive woman have to care for their patients and inspire all women to work together to better the health care profession. This article reflects on 1) past accomplishments of women, 2) present accolades and obstacles of women, and 3) future work to be done by female physicians.
Highlight past accomplishments by female physicians:
The following is a list of women whose contributions to society have helped change medicine and altered the careers of many that came after them.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker – First female U.S. Army surgeon in 1863.
Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler – First African American female physician in 1864.
Dr. Sara Baker – Contributions to public health policy significantly reduces maternal and child rates in the 1900s.
Dr. Margaret Chung – First American-born Chinese female physician in 1916.
Dr. Louise Pearce – Developed a drug to cure African sleeping sickness with colleagues in 1920.
Dr. Katharine Bishop – Co-discovers vitamin E in 1923,
Dr. Gladys Dick – Discovered bacteria causing scarlet fever in the 1920s.
Dr. Leila Alice Denmark – Co-developed a vaccine for pertussis in 1929.
Dr. Gerty Cori – Describes the Cori cycle (lactic acid cycle) to help treat diabetes in 1929.
Dr. Hattie Alexander – Developed treatment for influenza meningitis in 1939.
Dr. Helen Brooke Taussig – Co-developed the Blalock Taussig Thomas shunt for congenital heart defects in 1944.
Dr. Jane Wright – Discovered cancer could be treated with methotrexate in 1951.
Dr. Virginia Apgar – Created the APGAR score in 1953
Dr. Patricia Bath – Invented the Laserphaco Probe system for removing cataracts in 1986
Dr. Antonia Novello – First woman and first Hispanic woman to serve as surgeon general in 1990
Dr. Jocelyn Elders – First African American surgeon general in 1993
Dr. Nancy Dickey – First woman to be the president of AMA in 1997
We are celebrating female physicians today!
As we celebrate the amazing woman in medicine today, it is great to see that most entering and graduating from medical schools are women. Women make up approximately 52 percent of those graduating, while women only comprise about 36 percent of the current physician workforce.
It is worth acknowledging the incredible work that female physicians do daily. Although the health care industry remains dominated by male physicians, recent studies show that female physicians have a more patient-centered communication style which can lead to improved outcomes. Female physicians have been found to have higher patient satisfaction scores; there are also some studies suggesting a trend toward improved patient compliance and better outcomes. Female physicians have been found to have similar or better patient outcomes when treating chronic conditions such as diabetes and congestive heart failure and taking care of patient preventative care items. Lastly, there are studies suggesting that female physicians have a shorter length of stay and lower readmission rates for elderly hospitalized patients than their male counterparts.
Future work for female physicians
Women physicians continue to reshape and advance medicine, despite facing a disproportionate share of domestic and family responsibilities and numerous challenges in advancing their careers. Studies have shown that women do, on average, two hours per day more on childcare and household responsibilities as compared to their male colleagues. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how women physicians were disproportionately affected, with many cutting down their work hours, giving up leadership roles, and looking for alternative careers. Recent studies have also shown that female physicians suffer a greater burnout rate than male physicians (51 to 36 percent, respectively). This is further worsened by the wage discrepancy between sexes. Despite being highly trained professionals that are equivalent to males, female physicians, unfortunately, experience a massive wage gap that leaves them making $2 million less than their male counterparts over the course of their careers, as published by RAND corporation in 2021.
We propose that all physicians collectively work toward the following:
- Greater focus on flexible schedules for women looking to be with family more
- Equal compensation for woman physicians
- More leadership roles for women
On National Women Physicians Day, we can honor those who have blazed a trail for other female physicians while also recognizing current female doctors’ hard work, dedication, and tenacity. This day is an opportunity to highlight women’s unique challenges as they strive to achieve professional success in a traditionally male-dominated profession.
This is no Hallmark holiday.
The importance of celebrating National Women Physicians Day goes beyond honoring individual female physicians. It is also about raising awareness for gender-based inequalities in the health care system, such as lower pay for female doctors, a smaller percentage of female representation in leadership positions, and inadequate medical care for women’s health issues. By highlighting these issues on National Women Physicians Day, we can help create a more equitable health care system that works for everyone.
Happy National Woman’s Day to our colleagues and friends! This day is more than just another Hallmark holiday.
Corinne Sundar Rao is a board-certified internal medicine physician and founder, Legacy Physicians, which helps hospitals find well-qualified physicians at a much lower overhead than they would pay staffing agencies. She can be reached on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Aaron Morgenstein is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and founder, FlexMedStaff.com, a fully transparent and free marketplace for physicians to find new clinical and non-clinical opportunities to improve work-life balance. Contact Aaron here.