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For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

From the Dean: Recognizing women in medicine

Happy National Women Physicians Day 2023! Today is the fourth annual celebration that recognizes the contributions of female physicians, starting with the pioneering work of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who in 1849 became the first female physician in the United States. As I was thinking about the significance of today, I reflected back to my internship year (now called postgraduate year 1 or PGY1). There were 14 of us who just started in the internal medicine residency at the then-Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s). Thirteen of the interns looked like me – white and male. There was one female physician – and she was African American as well!

As a profession, we’ve come a long way since then. Today, about half the medical school classes across the country are made up of women (including the SMHS), and in most of the health sciences, women are in the majority. Still, there is room for more improvement, given the continuing lag between the proportion of men and women in medical schools and that we see out in the community. Nationwide, women make up about 37% of the physician workforce, although in North Dakota we are somewhat lower at around 31%. That places us near the bottom of the rankings of states with female physicians at no. 41 overall. For what it’s worth, Massachusetts is no. 1 at just over 43%.

At the UND SMHS, we’ve tried to develop a culture of inclusivity and diversity. A particular focus has been on recruiting and encouraging American Indian and rural students to matriculate here. But we’ve also emphasized gender equity issues and we’ve tried to be pro-active regarding issues like salary and academic advancement opportunities for our female faculty members. I’m especially grateful to Dr. Holly Brown-Borg, our assistant dean for gender equity, as she works with the SMHS leadership team and the extended SMHS family to try to be sensitive and responsive to these issues.

As the husband of a female physician, I have witnessed some of the unfairness that Susan (Dr. Susan Farkas) has experienced. I remember from the past when the hospital where she performed heart catheterizations had no dedicated locker room for female physicians to use to change into scrubs. There sure was one for the male physicians though! That obvious error was fixed by commissioning another locker room. Other similar issues can be more subtle, though, and not so easily fixed.

In some specialty fields such as pediatrics and Ob-Gyn, women constitute a majority of the physician workforce. But in other fields, not so much. Susan likes to point out the relative paucity of women in our own field of cardiology, for example. Only around 16% of cardiologists are female, and the fraction is even lower for interventional cardiology. The reasons for this likely are multi-factorial. Susan certainly knows firsthand the challenges of raising children, being a wife, and being a cardiologist. Yet, her success is a confirmation that it is possible to achieve a productive balance. Given the numbers, though, one does have to wonder what other factors might be involved, including the possibility of gender discrimination (whether overt or otherwise).

So please pause for a bit today (and in the future) and think about these issues. We’ve come a long way since 1849, but we still have a way to go!

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences