Women in Hospital Medicine Have to be Ready, Willing, Proactive

Several years into her hospitalist career, committee work had satisfied Sarita Satpathy, MD’s desire to positively impact patient care. Then she attended SHM’s Leadership Academy and was inspired to do more.

“I thought, ‘I want to do something and actually have a title where I can effect change,’” says Dr. Satpathy, now the hospitalist program medical director for Cogent HMG at Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif.

A year and a half after starting from scratch, Dr. Satpathy’s program has improved patient-care continuity, implemented 24/7 coverage, and earned buy-in from specialists, surgeons, and hospital leaders—most of whom are men.

“There aren’t as many female physician leaders, period,” says Dr. Satpathy, speaking of Seton Medical Center.

She could be talking about medicine in general.

Despite the fact that women have made up nearly half of all medical school graduates since 2005-2006 and make up 30% of the total physician population, only 16% of MD faculty at the full professor rank are female.1,2,3 Just 11% and 13% of medical school permanent deans and department chairs are women, respectively.4

Beyond academia, results from surveys conducted by the American College of Healthcare Executives show that female healthcare executives are less likely to be CEOs and chief operating officers than their male counterparts. The results also indicate that the proportion of female CEOs remained fairly stable between surveys in 1990, 1995, 2000, and 2006; the proportion of female vice presidents actually decreased.5

This reality, experts say, undercuts America’s ability to remain at the leading edge of medical research, impedes women’s health improvements, and leaves fewer role models for future generations of physicians. In looking at why female physicians are underrepresented in leadership, key issues emerge, including unconscious bias, outdated work structures, lack of sponsorship, and conflict between the biological and professional time clocks. Although not all female doctors have faced these obstacles, many of them have and still do.

But opportunities are there—especially in HM—for female doctors to step into leadership roles. The onus is on women to seize them and on institutions to create a fertile environment for diverse leadership, physician leaders say.

Leadership Obstacles

Men often are associated with leadership by virtue of a phenomenon called unconscious bias, which posits that people identify certain genders with certain roles due to subconscious cues accumulated over time, says Hannah Valantine, MD, professor of medicine and senior associate dean for diversity and leadership at the Stanford

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