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Women in medicine

Even though the gender gap in medicine is closing quickly (about 50% of medical students are female), young female physicians in practice are often viewed with suspicion.  Dr. Michelle Au, an anesthesiologist and graduate of my alma mater, is regularly asked if she’s “a real doctor” or if she’s the nurse or a student of some sort.  This week she blogged about her experiences, and there was a large volume of interesting responses.

I myself have had a rough time of it in the past (now I guess I look old enough to “be a real doctor”), and was routinely assumed to be a nurse, physical therapist, or even pharmaceutical rep.  I actually wasn’t that offended by being miscast – mostly because I took it as a compliment not to look like a doctor.  Although it’s somewhat unclear what a real doctor is supposed to look like, I have a feeling he’s older, balding, and paunchy.

But one day I was a little annoyed when my age and gender was equated with incompetence, which crosses the line for me.  Here’s how the conversation went between me and the parents of a toddler with a small cut on his forehead:

Me: “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. X, I’m Dr. Jones.  I see that Johnny bumped his head and will need a few stitches.” [Enter long history and physical discussion here].

Mrs. X: “Are YOU going to put in the stitches?” She asked nervously, scanning the ED for other physician suturing candidates.

Me: “Yes, I assure you I will be very careful.  I’ve sutured many similar lacerations.”

Mr. X: “Yeah, but don’t you think he needs a plastic surgeon?”

Me: Looking at the small cut that only required 2 or 3 sutures.  “I understand that you want the best possible cosmetic outcome for your son, but I assure you that this cut is so small that the plastic surgeon wouldn’t close it any differently than I would.”

Mrs. X: Spotting a tall, male intern fiddling with some bandages on a supply cart.  “Well, can’t he do it?”

Me: Viewing the clumsy medicine intern.  “Well, yes, he could.  Shall I ask Dr. Big Hands if he can come and suture your son’s forehead?  He’s never closed a lac before and has been dying to try one.”

Mrs. X: Um… Well, maybe you should just do it.

Outcome: I did a beautiful, delicate job of closing the small laceration, and the parents watched in awe as I used the tiniest needle and thread to create a seamless finish.

Mr. X: Thanks for your help.  You did a really great job.

Have any of you readers had similar experiences?This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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