As women physicians and members of Physicians for Patient Protection, a grassroots patient advocacy group 12,500 physicians strong, we witness daily the extraordinary genius of women physicians. In 1847, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to attend medical school in the United States. In 2016, Dr. Blackwell’s birthday—February 3rd—was selected to be “National Women Physician Day” to honor the work of women physicians across the country.
Inspired by pioneers like Dr. Blackwell, women have struggled and sacrificed to achieve the title of physician. Thus, last week on February 3, we were appalled to watch the achievements unique to women physicians already being cast aside just seven years after being recognized.
The University of Kansas Health System- St. Francis Campus (UKHS-SFC)- in a now-deleted Facebook post, elected to acknowledge not only women physicians, but non-physician practitioners, writing that, while the day “celebrates the accomplishments of female physicians everywhere,” the organization “would like to recognize some of the talented female providers who are part of the Saint Francis Campus family.” In an apparent effort toward inclusion, the post minimized the efforts of women physicians, saying, “We are proud of the care that ALL our physicians provide, but on this day, we recognize the women who are part of our team of expert providers.”
The post was followed by a video link with slides of 14 women physicians followed by 42 non-physician practitioners including nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), certified nurse midwives, and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs). For some unknown reason, women physicians in the departments of hospital medicine, pathology, and emergency medicine were excluded.
This post is yet another example of the use of the term ‘provider’ by health systems to create a sense of equality between physicians and non-physician practitioners (NPPs) by implying that everyone does the same job. But physicians, NPs, and PAs are not equivalent. Each profession has its own different pathway of education and training, and its own unique challenges. Celebrating ‘all providers’ completely misses the point of National Women Physician Day.
Celebrating non-physician female practitioners on a day dedicated to the work of women physicians ignores the enormous sacrifices made by women who choose to become physicians. PA week, NP week, and CRNA week specifically celebrate NPPs. The unwillingness of hospital systems to focus praise for just one day on the job women physicians alone execute degrades morale at a time when women physicians are experiencing burnout in record numbers.
Physicians work, on average, 80 hours per week for a minimum of 7 years during medical school and residency. These calculations do not include our grueling 2 years of premedical studies in college nor the 1-3 years of post-doctoral fellowship done by many physicians after residency. We miss nearly all major milestones in our loved ones’ lives. Many of us delay childbearing, resulting in a nearly 25% infertility rate in women physicians, twice that of the general population. When we do have children, we brutalize our bodies and unborn children by leaping up to respond to medical emergencies and working for 28-hour shifts while pregnant. Completing our more-than-decades-long training does not level the playing field. During the pandemic, women physicians are 25 times more likely to be responsible for childcare than our male counterparts.
So, what do the demands of physician-hood look like in real women physicians’ lives? Giving birth during residency and taking only 6 weeks of maternity leave. Undergoing surgery to repair a birth injury, working the morning of surgery, and going back to work the following day despite the surgeon’s recommendation to take a week off to avoid prolonged walking and standing. Treating patients with potentially fatal infectious disease, while pregnant and caring for a toddler. Anxiety over transmitting these infections to her children or becoming ill and leaving her children motherless. Living with remorse for missing a brother’s cancer treatments without having the option to go be with him due to working night float as a medical intern. Delaying a family for fifteen years during medical training, only to finish at age 38 and deliver her first – and only – child in a “geriatric pregnancy” at age 42.
Our stories are not special or extraordinary. The Profession of Medicine requires physicians to prioritize patient well-being above all else. Despite the additional challenges women physicians sometimes face due to physical reproductive issues, women nonetheless excel at the practice of medicine: studies show that patients have better outcomes when taken care of by women physicians. The post by UKHS-SFC is just one example of the disturbing ignorance and lack of true appreciation for the distinctive contributions to Medicine made by women physicians.
Women physicians are not providers. We are not interchangeable with other female clinicians. We have sacrificed and achieved more for our patients’ personal benefit than most will ever know. We encourage everyone to take a moment to thank the women physicians on your healthcare teams. The notes and words of appreciation we have received from our patients over the years give us strength to succeed in difficult times. Women physicians do not ask for appreciation, but when we receive it, our enthusiasm and fortitude to practice medicine and serve patients is given life. Next year on National Women Physician Day, we hope that hospital systems take the day to celebrate women physicians whole-heartedly. We have earned it.
Alyson Maloy, MD and Christin Giordano, MD are women physicians and founding members of Physicians for Patient Protection.