Released in 2016, Crystal Emery’s powerful documentary “Black Women in Medicine,” was an eye-opener for many in, and outside, of medicine. Her film created awareness for an all too easily ignored topic: only two percent of doctors are Black women. I am a part of that two percent. The reality Emery highlighted in the film is my own, and like her, I feel a sense of urgency to drive change.
When asked about how the contributions of Black women in science have been downplayed in the past and if representation of Black women matters, Emery crystalized it perfectly, “…it’s not about representation. It’s about participation. We are part of the American fabric.”
As a Black psychiatrist, I often think about the benefits of creating better support for Black women, women of color, and women in general across the healthcare industry. How then do we increase our participation? There is clearly much to do.
Today, only 37.5 percent of physicians in healthcare are women, and the pay gap between men and women is enormous: on average male doctors have an annual income of $264,139.00 compared to $183,829.00 for female doctors. On top of this, most female physicians are the primary caretaker in their own family and have a lengthy “second shift” when they get home from work. A population of highly skilled doctors, the undervaluing of female physicians has deprived the marketplace — and, most important, patients — from improved care for too long.
Fortunately, slow, deliberate progress is underway. For example, the popular hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike, calls attention to the implicit bias against Black female physicians and has led to increased dialogue on this important topic, the necessary precursor to steady improvement. Based on my personal experience as a female physician, the trend over the last few years is a positive one. The creation of more opportunities for female mentorship along with the space to talk about the challenges female physicians face openly has been enormously valuable. My male, female, and nonbinary colleagues alike share this commitment and are working alongside me to make sure that physicians’ concerns are heard, seen, and valued — all of which are critical to the increased recruitment of more female physicians and more female physicians of color.
I take considerable pride in working with early-career psychiatrists and helping them to navigate the myriad of issues they’ll face in the years ahead, including such seminal issues as how to balance being a parent with being a physician; determination of the most effective channels for promotion; how to define the right long-term life path.
The receipt — and later repayment — of effective mentorship is one of the most important determinants of career success. My mentor helped shape my early career by encouraging me to take leadership positions, pursue writing and research, and expose myself to as many clinical opportunities as possible. As a mentor to psychiatry residents now, I have the opportunity to share my knowledge about the “unspoken rules” of career advancement, offer advice, and help the next generation build their respective confidence.
As a staff-physician at a leading telemedicine provider — where we have a 77 percent female physician workforce — I am indeed fortunate to be able to help shape how our physicians are trained, how the company on-boards new physicians, and play a role in educating doctors about negotiating cultural differences which can inform patient treatment and improve the quality of care. And I’m not alone — several women hold senior-level positions on this virtual care provider’s leadership team.
Telemedicine allows me the flexibility to control my own schedule, spend more time with family, and focus on my priorities. I also work remotely, which cuts down on travel-time and stress, and makes for a much better quality of living. After all, how are you going to be responsible to care for a patient when you are not afforded the luxury of caring for yourself?
Newer models like this are ripe for adoption across the healthcare industry. In turn, they will drive the change we need, create an equitable environment for women in medicine, and ultimately serve our patients better. Collective achievement of these goals will make it possible for female physicians to thrive and fully participate in medicine.