Today is the fourth annual National Women Physicians Day. Originated by Hala Sabry, D.O. to commemorate the achievements, to acknowledge persistent disparities and to encourage the full, equal and valuable participation of women in medicine. February 3rd was chosen as the official date as it is the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Bristol, England in 1821. Receiving her M.D. in 1849 as the first female physician graduate of an American medical school, Dr. Blackwell was a trailblazer and advocate for women in medicine throughout her life and we honor her leadership on this day.
Dr. Sabry is also the founder of Physician Mom’s Group, which has grown since 2014 into a 70,000+ member collective providing support, collegiality, mentorship, understanding and has nurtured the progress of women physicians into leadership, entrepreneurship, politics, private practice, education and speaks to the heart of those balancing parenthood and practice. Acknowledging the need for and demonstrating the power of community, PMG has been a leader in addressing the growing concern surrounding physician burnout, shown to impact women physicians more significantly.
I am proud to note that women have always had a seat at the table in Osteopathic Medicine – revolutionary on many levels, A.T. Still welcomed women into the first class of D.O.s and the concentration has remained ahead of the curve compared to allopathic schools with 50% female enrollment noted for the first time by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2017 while the same was achieved by osteopathic colleges in 1923.
Feminine Touch: History of Women in Osteopathic Medicine investigates and honors the experiences and accomplishments of female D.O.s and inspired a documentary, available for free streaming through PBS. Featured in the film is Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, who fought not only the uphill battle as a woman, but also as a minority and earned her place as one of only two African-American women in the inaugural class of MSU COM and eventually the first African-American female dean of an American medical school, striving to change the system for the better for the students, teachers, doctors and patients.
Even in the face of ongoing discrimination including income inequality, harassment and opportunity overlook, women physicians prove themselves to be excellent clinicians, brilliant educators, powerful leaders, creative innovators and produce results equal, and even superior, to their male colleagues. While I hesitate to write this, as it feels competitive and potentially derogatory to men in medicine, I also reflect on the battle of my profession as a whole, gender excluded, and note that equal does not, and in my opinion should not, mean the same.
In seeking a level playing field, equal opportunity and respect in medicine, many osteopathic physicians worked so hard to be “as good as” their allopathic counterparts that they minimized, compartmentalized, abandoned, ignored and even apologized for those things that made them unique and, in many ways, diluted the differences that brought the profession into existence and made it valuable. There is room to be equal, legitimate, qualified and unique. I would venture to say that there is a vast space carved out of the desperate need for variety in philosophy, approach, personality, style and delivery of medical care. We can be founded in common information, research, logic and reason AND deliver care with a broader view of the patient and humanity – seven billion people bring a level of diversity that calls for, and can certainly handle, a few different ways of looking at things!
Just as D.O.s and M.D.s can share space at the table of medicine, so too can women pull their chairs up amongst the men and need not fit into the mold of the masculine to be seen, treated and respected as equal. Quite the contrary – we are there not in spite of our differences but BECAUSE of them – asking women to postpone marriage, partnership, parenthood for medicine negates the balanced perspective they bring to their encounters with patients, understanding life from all angles and appropriately delivering health care to the whole person. Belittling women who choose to prioritize their career over personal life also minimizes the necessary contribution of a woman who is dedicated to professional advancement and advocacy and the fulfillment of full time, focused commitment. We can welcome all levels of participation, perspective and preference without shame, apology or resentment and embrace equality along with the amazing, beautiful tapestry of difference in medicine created through the presence of women at the table.
I was fortunate to begin my journey in medicine with powerful female role models – including an expert in Tropical Medicine, an educational leader navigating the M.D./D.O. cultural divide, a rare female surgical sub-specialist juggling three children with grace and ease, an expert in Pediatric Osteopathy and dedicated researcher. Many of my teachers during the early years of training were female and fabulous and my peers have gone on to chair departments, lecture nationally and internationally, publish studies, launch private practices, teach students, direct residencies – breaking barriers, elevating care and changing the face of medicine for the better through their participation.
With gratitude for those who took the first steps, for those who reinforced the way, for those who continue to challenge for equality, for those who seek, struggle, strive and serve – I thank you, I support you, I see you, I celebrate you, I am with you.
Let us hold tight to the string of the difference that matters and may the kite of the feminine fly high in the sky of medicine, taking its place in the abundant atmosphere, enriching the splendor of the infinite space for the best health of all.