With five months remaining until the new UNLV School of Medicine officially welcomes its first class, the university has offered admission to 40 prospective students – half of them women.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that women make up nearly half of Nevada’s population. But it’s an anomaly in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally in terms of physician gender diversity.
Women make up only about 27 percent of the physician workforce statewide, well below the national average of 34 percent and a far cry from the national leader in doctor parity, Washington, D.C., where 46 percent of active licensed physicians are female, according to Kaiser Health News.
“I think it’s shocking,” UNLV School of Medicine Dean Barbara Atkinson said of the state’s current physician gender imbalance.
And there is more at stake than equal opportunity.
Atkinson said that female patients often prefer to be seen by doctors of the same gender, especially when it comes to obstetrics and gynecological services.
A study published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine also found that female doctors may be more successful on average than their male counterparts at treating patients in the hospital and keeping them healthy long-term.
IMBALANCE IN ADMISSIONS
The even split of early admission offers by the UNLV medical school represents the quality of female would-be students, even though just 40 percent of applicants for the coming school year were women, about 7 percent below the national average, Atkinson said.
Men also outnumbered women applicants last year at both established medical schools in the state — Touro University Nevada in Henderson and the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine — by 14 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
Dr. Jennifer Baynosa, a University Medical Center general surgeon specializing in treating breast cancer, said medical schools can help boost those figures by improving outreach, especially among girls in high school and early college, and by creating cultures that encourage women to aim high.
She applauded UNLV and UNR for trying to ensure diversity, as she recalled being discouraged from pursuing a surgery specialty during medical school at the University of Southern California in the early 2000s. She said some staff told her the challenge of a career as a surgeon could be too great.
“Things that kept coming up were the fact that I’m female, that if I wanted children … it might not be the best career path,” said Baynosa, 40, who is married to a fellow doctor and has two young daughters.
Baynosa, who also is program director of the UNR medical school’s general surgery residency in Las Vegas, said having more women in teaching roles is important to help young women wrestling with similar questions.
“You have to have female mentors. I think it’s really important that we have female faculty, female physicians doing the outreach and showing you can have a family,” she said.
‘A GREAT CAREER FOR WOMEN’
Atkinson, the UNLV School of Medicine dean, said the fact that women are flourishing in other health care jobs, including as physician assistants, in Nevada suggests that some women still see becoming a doctor as too arduous or too demanding, especially if they want to have families.
She said the new medical school could help address that misperception with programs to encourage female physicians.
“It’s a great career for women, and there are ways to get help with all kinds of things like child care,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Atkinson and others highlight how much progress has been made by women over the last few decades.
Dr. Eliza Chin, executive director of the American Medical Women’s Association, said it’s important to realize that nearly half of medical students in the United States are now women.
She acknowledged that increased enrollment hasn’t erased the female doctor deficit as quickly as it could have. The reason for it isn’t exactly clear, she said, adding, “somewhere there’s a leaky pipeline.”
Dr. Kate Martin, a family medicine physician and director of UNR’s family residency program at the Las Vegas campus, said she thinks today’s gender imbalance is a reflection of previous decades when women made up a smaller proportion of medical students.
Martin, who graduated from medical school in 2006, recalled that she also was discouraged, including by some women, when she talked about becoming a doctor in high school. But by the time she entered college, she said, she encountered mentors to help her.
“This is a generational thing,” she said. “It takes time to make change. I see this process as working.”