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Women physicians are in medical offices, hospitals, universities – and, sometimes, movies


In entertainment, study finds far fewer females in white coats than males.

photographer filming doctor on camera: © H_Ko - stock.adobe.com

© H_Ko - stock.adobe.com

When it comes to showing women physicians in movies, art is not imitating life.

Women now make up more than 1/3 of practicing physicians and more than half the nation’s medical students. But that doesn’t mean they’re getting proportionally more screen time, according to a new study of film portrayals of female doctors from 1990 to 2020.

“Among physician-characters in movies, even in the most recent movies we studied, the percent of women among physician characters was more reflective of the demographics of the medical profession over a quarter of a century ago,” researcher Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, said in a news release.

Jagsi is chair of the Radiation Oncology Department of Emory University School of Medicine. She led the analysis of physician characters, found through plot summaries, key word, and casting credits in imdb.com, the Internet movie database.

Why are the figures important? Media shape perceptions of who doctors are, Jagsi said.

Or aren’t. Movies rated G and PG had “woeful underrepresentation of women and people of color” portraying physicians, Jagsi said. Those movies are most likely presented to young viewers and can shape their sense of who can and should be a physician, she said.

“We know that many women physicians continue to recount anecdotes of being mistaken for nurses, along with stereotypes that make it harder for them to do their jobs effectively,” Jagsi said. “We also worry that the full talent pool of young people who should be able to envision themselves as doctors may not be exposed to diverse role models that reflect the actual makeup of the profession or the population we serve.

“Movies are important and memorable experiences that can influence people deeply, so we thought we would examine the representation of physician characters,” she said.

  • Overall, in 1,226 movies with 2,295 physician characters, 426, or 18.6%, were women, and 1,869, or 81.4%, were men, the study said.
  • In the 1990s, 108 of 379 movies, or 28.5%, had at least one woman physician character; 271 movies depicted all physician characters as men. As of 1992, women made up 18.8% of the actual physician workforce.
  • There were 120 movies out of 412, or 29.1%, showing at least one woman physician character in the 2000s, and 292 showing all physician characters as men. As of 2010, 30.4% of physicians were women.
  • From 2010 to 2020, 121 out of 435 movies, or 27.8%, had at least one woman physician character, and 314 depicted all physician characters as men. By 2019, 36.3% of all physicians were women.

On screen, women physician characters were more likely to be in scripts with multiple physician characters. Movie genre, popularity, and ratings were not associated with including at least one woman physician character, the study said.

The research letter, “Portrayal of Women as Physicians in Movies, 1990-2020,” was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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