According to the latest findings, 69% of physicians were men. This aligns with similar studies, including national statistics for 2016 by the Kaiser Family Foundation which puts the number at 66% male physicians of a pool of more than 926,000 MDs and DOs.
Health policy experts say that even with more women entering medical school, it is still crucial to address the stresses female physicians face throughout their careers—such as the pay gap, returning to medicine and burnout—to keep them in the profession.
There is no concrete data, however, to indicate when women are leaving medicine— just that they are leaving at some point due to stressors as well as to raise children, pursue different career paths and other reasons.
It will take time for the numbers of physicians in practice to equalize, considering that medical schools in previous decades have been mostly male, says Kim Templeton, MD, president of the American Medical Women’s Association.
“Now that we’re half of the medical school class, it just takes a while, but that’s assuming that everyone is going to stay in healthcare, and that can be a bit of challenge,” Templeton says.
Why women leave medicine
In the Physician Report, when asked “what do you consider to be the biggest issue(s) facing primary care right now?” 71% of female practicing physicians cited physician burnout, compared to 64% of men. All physicians experience burnout, but Templeton says it is more common for women.
Burnout happens for a number of reasons, but if a woman also starts out making less annually for doing the same work as her male counterparts, she starts to question the situation, explains Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD, executive director of the Indiana University National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health and a practicing internist.
Burnout increases if a woman doesn’t feel as well respected, she says, which includes financially. According to research published in JAMA Internal Medicine last year, there is a gender pay gap of roughly $20,000 on average for academic physicians.
One of the most common causes of burnout occurs when someone feels they lack control over their work environment, Templeton says, and that’s a major complaint among female doctors.
Burnout can also lead to depression and substance abuse in some cases, Templeton notes, and sometimes even to suicide. Research published in the journal Psychiatry in 2009 indicates that suicide rates are higher among female physicians than male physicians.
“This is not an insignificant issue,” she says. “So I would say for an individual woman experiencing burnout, seek help, find help. Talk to other people because half the other people around you are feeling the same way.”
In addition to the pay gap, Rohr-Kirchgraber says, female physicians, like most women, take on additional work at home. “Whether you’re a mom or whether you don’t have kids at all, the majority of the household chores are usually done by the woman and that’s on top of everything else, and so burnout increases because we’re trying to do everything,” she says. “It’s just not possible sometimes.”