Dr. B stared blankly at her patient as she considered his comment: “I just think I’d like to hear a male doctor’s opinion if you don’t mind.” Well, actually she did mind. In fact, she minded a little more each time she heard it–or some variation of the same comment. Hadn’t she gone to medical school just as long as her male colleagues? Worked as many hours in residency? Treated three times as many patients as some of her younger male peers? But Dr. B didn’t say any of that. Instead, she left the room and moved on to her next patient.
You may read this story and think, surely, this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore–at least not in my organization. Perhaps you’re right, but according to an article for the AMA, 70% of women physicians reported experiencing some form of gender discrimination. Whether it’s coming from a patient who assumes she’s a nurse, a manager pushing back on her maternity leave, or a peer talking over her in a meeting, discrimination against female physicians is not as uncommon as most of us would hope.
According to a January 2022 article from Harvard Business Review, women physicians are also dealing with higher rates of burnout, lower levels of professional fulfillment, and higher rates of depression than their male peers. So perhaps it’s not hard to imagine that as physician turnover increases, women may be more likely than men to be among those changing jobs, cutting their hours, or leaving the profession entirely.
The trend is especially concerning when you consider that women make up one-third of the physician population, and they outnumber male students in medical school. As female representation increases in medicine, this trend will cause an already dire physician shortage to get significantly worse.
Even before the pandemic, studies documented that women were more likely than men to leave the profession or decrease their hours. So the question is not if they are more likely to leave, but why? And what can be done to prevent them from leaving?
Why Are Women Leaving Medicine?
The aforementioned article from Harvard Business Review explores precisely this question. The authors cite evidence to suggest medicine takes a greater toll on women for multiple reasons: 1) Women spend more time with patients and more time charting than men, 2) They have more obligations outside of work than their male peers, and 3) They receive less recognition, respect, and compensation for their efforts. Consequently, many female physicians would not choose the career again nor would they recommend it to a prospective medical school student.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By identifying–and addressing–the unique challenges women physicians face, employers can improve the female physician experience, increase retention rates, and take a critical step in combating the worsening physician shortage.
How to Support Women in Medicine
Work-life balance, equity, respect. While all physicians need these things, the data indicates women are more likely to report dissatisfaction in these areas, likely contributing to the elevated turnover among female physicians. Employers must adequately respond to the specific challenges women in medicine face by taking steps to improve in the following areas:
1. Improve Work-Life Balance
The importance of work-life balance appears to be increasing with each new generation, but for women especially, who spend more time on non-professional work outside of the office, work-life balance often continues to be out of reach. The pandemic worsened the problem, with one study showing women physicians were more than 30 times as likely to be responsible for childcare and schooling during that time. Employers that recognize this challenge and offer ways to help women achieve their ideal work-life balance will be more likely to retain those physicians.
The ideal work-life balance looks different for everyone, so talk to your physicians–male and female–about what is most important to them. Some may prioritize a more flexible schedule, but here too, what is ideal will vary for each individual. Whether it’s a 4-day work week, 7 days on / 7 days off, job sharing, part-time, or working telehealth or admin days at home, employers must recognize that a flexible schedule is just that–flexible–and if they hope to improve work-life balance, employers will need to offer a variety of options.
Of course, work-life balance isn’t only about the schedule. Providing increased administrative support can do wonders to improve a physician’s experience at work. Hiring a medical scribe to help with charting and other administrative burdens, will put precious hours back in a physician’s day.
2. Commit to Equal Pay and Opportunity
According to a December 2021 study published in Health Affairs, male physicians earn an average of $2 million dollars more than women over the course of a medical career. Additionally, women receive fewer awards, are invited to speak less often, are published less frequently, and hold fewer leadership roles. Studies suggest the COVID-19 pandemic worsened these disparities.
Organizations should commit to pay transparency and productivity models that factor in the nuances of treating different types of patients. The HBR article points out that female physicians are more likely than men to treat female patients, whose preventative care (pelvic and breast exams) require longer visits. Risk-adjusted panel payments should take these complexities into account.
Employers should also pursue diversity in leadership and ensure women have equal access to current leaders and the opportunity to train and learn from them. Develop a leadership program specifically for women and assign female mentors when possible. Additionally, provide coaching for male leaders and physicians so they learn to identify and overcome their own unconscious bias.
3. Increase Support and Respect
There’s no doubt that practicing medicine today is not easy for anyone. However, studies indicate the job may take a greater toll on women. Not only do women have a harder time decompressing outside of work, they often spend more time with patients, more time charting, and may experience more empathy for patients than their male peers. While some studies suggest these qualities may result in better outcomes, they can also take a greater toll and lead to higher rates of burnout.
The solution here mirrors the prior points. Flexible schedules, help with administrative burdens, and a mentorship program will go a long way to decrease the toll practicing medicine takes on women. Show further support by encouraging them to take time off, pursue hobbies, or get involved with a charity–anything to help them disconnect from the stress of practicing medicine.
And finally, in addition to your support, women physicians need your respect. Show it to them by asking questions and including them when making decisions.
Taking steps to address these challenges will not go unnoticed by your women physicians. By providing improved work-life balance, equal opportunity, and increased support, you will lift job satisfaction, improve retention rates, and ease the impact of the physician shortage.
If your organization is seeking physicians or advanced practice providers to support your current team, the Jackson Physician Search Recruitment team is happy to offer our expertise. Contact us today.