Overview of Research on Women in Medicine--Issues for Public Policymakers

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The recent expansion of the nation's supply of physicians has brought with it dramatic increases in the number of women entering medical school and practice. This paper provides an overview of the literature on women in medicine and synthesizes major findings on the differences between male and female physicians in terms of specialty choice, productivity, income, geographic location of practice, practice settings and types of patients, leadership within the profession, and other characteristics. Between 1981 and the year 2000, the total supply of physicians in practice is expected to increase by 27 percent; the number of women in practice is expected to increase by 153 percent. By the year 2000, one physician in five will be a woman. The fairly limited research on gender-related differences indicate that women tend to cluster in a few specialties (pediatrics, psychiatry, pathology, preventive medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and anesthesiology), many of which are specialties expected to have fewer physicians than needed nationally by 1990. Women have also been shown to have lower productivity and lower income than male physicians, to choose urban locations more frequently, to prefer salaried and institutional settings more often, to serve different types of patients, and to belong to medical organizations less frequently. From the standpoint of public policy, the differences between the characteristics of male and female physicians have mixed implications. For example, the choice of specialty and lower productivity of women could lessen the negative impact of future physician surpluses. On the other hand, a preference for urban practice could exacerbate geographic maldistribution problems. More research will be required to define and predict the long-term effect of significant increases in the number of female physicians in the United States.