Female Doctors May Have a Rosier View of Medicine

Shelly Reese


January 31, 2013

Lollipops and Balloons?

Although the word "optimism" may have a touchy-feely ring to it, the survey shows female physicians' more positive attitudes may have a meaningful impact on the future of medicine. "Optimism" doesn't mean that female physicians are passing out smiley-face stickers, Singleton says, but rather that "they're not fighting Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and medical homes and EMRs." Likewise, they're not burning out because they're doing what it takes to balance their work and home responsibilities with flexible schedules, and they're not leaving medicine in droves because they are optimistic about the future of the profession.

From a policy perspective, that "may translate to a much faster transition to ACOs and medical homes, because women see the value of it," Singleton says.

But it also points to growing problems with access. More than 27% of female respondents work fewer than 40 hours per week, compared with 17.9% of men. Merritt Hawkins estimates that on the basis of the differential, women see 13% fewer patients, Singleton says. As the female workforce grows, that differential will contribute to growing access problems, "particularly acute in the primary care modalities that are top-heavy with female providers."

Important Implications for Healthcare

If that trend doesn't grab the attention of hospital CEOs, Singleton says, it should. "From an employer perspective, if you're not looking at your workforce and considering this, you're in trouble, because it's going to affect how you hire providers and how many you hire. It's going to change your succession planning and your midlevel volumes and percentages. What happens when your permanent part-time physician workforce jumps from 5% or 10% to 40%?"

The outlook of this new workforce will be equally important, he says. "If you were to go to any of my CEOs and ask how much the attitude of a physician matters, they're going to roll their eyes and say, 'It's everything.' And it has a direct bearing on everything from their recruiting and retention practices to their ability to implement new programs."

Asked what they find most satisfying about medicine, male and female doctors agree that patient relationships and intellectual stimulation top the list, but women placed greater emphasis on those categories, whereas men put more stock in financial rewards and the prestige of medicine. Those attitudes have a direct bearing on what they find dissatisfying about medicine. Female physicians are far more frustrated than male doctors by the long hours that medicine demands and the lack of personal time.

But what about patients? Does optimism affect quality of care?

"If I were a patient, I'd want to go to a qualified person -- male or female -- who was more optimistic and more hopeful and better able to infuse me with those qualities that I would need at a very trying time," says Dr. Gayatri Devi, a New York neurologist and president of the American Medical Women's Association. "I'm not expecting them to be Pollyanna, but in the future we are going to be a country of chronic disease, and I think people who are hopeful tend to transmit that hope to those that are around them."

That's essential, she notes, because regardless of whether a doctor is male or female, "medicine is about treating the person and not the disease."