It’s 2021. The world has fundamentally changed since 1970 — thankfully, we no longer wear bell bottoms or listen to disco. Another improvement can be seen in healthcare. Technology has grown more accurate, treatment has grown more effective, and the population of professionals has grown more diverse.
In 1970, only 5% of physicians were women; as of 2019, around 35% of physicians are women (Stewart, 2019). This incredible growth is the result of years of an increasing matriculation of female medical students. Women now make up the majority of medical school classes: in the 2020-2021 academic year, 53.6% of medical school matriculants were women (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2021).
As more women become practicing physicians, more women also take on leadership roles in medicine: in 2020-2021, female physicians presided over the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), AAFP Foundation, American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, Association of Departments of Family Medicine, North American Primary Care Research Group, and Society of Teachers of Family Medicine (Stewart, 2019). This is a stark contrast to 1970, when leaders in medicine were predominantly men.
This increased diversity is a tremendous benefit to both the profession and the patients it serves. A study at Harvard found that Medicare “patients treated by female physicians had lower 30-day mortality and lower 30-day readmissions” to the hospital than patients treated by male physicians, even after adjusting for age, medical conditions, and severity of illness (Tsugawa et. al., 2017). The authors suggested that this is because female physicians are more likely to follow clinical guidelines and practice evidence-based medicine.
Despite the incredible growth in diversity and improved patient outcomes that have resulted from more women practicing medicine, significant gaps remain. Medical academia is still incredibly gendered. In 1991, only 5% of medical school department chairs were women; in 2020 that number marginally increased to 21% (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2020). White males still dominate the medical faculty ranks, with 63.9% of faculty identifying as white and 58.6% identifying as male overall (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2019).
While more practicing physicians are women, they are concentrated in specializations that focus on primary care and the health of women and children. The 64.3% of women in pediatrics sharply contrasts with the tiny 5.8% of female orthopedic surgeons (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2021).
There is still more work to be done to improve both representation in medicine as well as healthcare outcomes for other minority groups, including Black and Hispanic Americans. Black people are among the most underrepresented groups in medicine: Black women comprise only 2% of the physician workforce, while Black Americans make up 13.6% of the US population (Roy, 2020). Notably, one trend is moving backward: more Black men entered medical school in 1978 than in 2014 (Gallegos, 2016). Only 3.8% of doctors identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2019 (Alltucker, 2020). These are critical inequities in our healthcare system from both the patient and provider perspective: patients deserve to feel represented by those who care for them.
We need increased representation of physicians from these backgrounds in order for the healthcare profession to truly reflect the population that it serves. Seeing majority-female medical school classes is truly monumental, but we have a long way to go to eradicate the disparities in physician representation. It’s 2021: how long will it be until people of all backgrounds feel welcome to enter the medical field?