a moonflower symbolising the delicate beauty of a woman

Women at the heart of medicine

- Photography by Dr Jane Barker

With gender equity in medical schools, women are very definitely at the heart of Medicine where they always should have been. The question remains, however, have they been able to influence Medicine by bringing the love, care and nurturing innate to being women, or are they still being forced to assume male roles in what is a tough profession?

In a landmark paper published late last year in JAMA(1) a study showed that elderly patients admitted acutely to medical wards under the care of a female intern did better than those admitted under male interns. Statistically women appear to be better communicators, to be more thorough and to take more time than their male counterparts. Love and compassion have always been difficult to quantify in our evidence based world, but I am sure they too contribute. This paper suggests that the way women work is at least as effective, if not more effective, than men.

There are, and have been, many marvellous women in Medicine. Despite this, women still on average earn less and are poorly represented in some fields such as surgery. Women doctors are still subjected to bullying and sexual harassment in ways which never should have been accepted and certainly have no place today. It was disheartening to hear stories of workplace bullying amongst surgeons reported in the media over the last few years. The public, I feel, was shocked, but the profession itself was less surprised. In a recent case reported in the media a senior doctor who had drugged and raped his female junior medical officer was given a reduced sentence because of his “service to his patients”. Such a legal judgement is appalling and one shudders to think how any sane judge could make such comments in the face of obvious abuse of power.

It is heartening therefore to know that young women doctors are challenging the system which allows such abuse. In New Zealand, a sixth year medical student is vying for the position of chair of the NZ Medical council. While one might observe that having someone so young and clinically inexperienced in the role is inappropriate, perhaps younger doctors feel the women in Medicine have been too complacent, and have been slow to challenge abusive behaviours.

One such young doctor, a trainee physician in Sydney, was very active in the role of improving conditions for young doctors, until she committed suicide.

Women in medicine have a significantly higher rate of diagnosed depression and anxiety than the general population, and sadly have a higher suicide rate. This young woman was not merely a statistic, but much respected by her colleagues and loved by her family and had a bright future ahead of her. A woman who was overwhelmed by Medicine and tragically took her own life.

Her story should motivate us all to make Medicine a more loving and caring profession, not only for our patients but for us too. It is time we brought those qualities so needed in healing, so natural in women, to the forefront of Medicine. It is time we challenged a working environment which creates such stress and unhappiness in those working in it.

Putting love right, left and centre in Medicine – at the heart of medicine where it belongs – would benefit not only women but men, allowing them in turn to be more caring of themselves and therefore more able to care for their patients, which is all of us.


  1. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2593255


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