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Women outnumber men at medical schools in Philadelphia area and across the nation

Women face obstacles as they change the face of medicine.

Women have gone from a rarity to a minority to the majority in U.S. medical schools.
Women have gone from a rarity to a minority to the majority in U.S. medical schools.Read moreiStock

For the first time, women outnumber men in U.S. medical schools, making up 50.5% of the total enrollment, according to 2019 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The milestone builds on a long trend, with women nudging the 50% mark for 16 years, and becoming the majority of new enrollees beginning two years ago. Since 2015, the number of female applicants has been increasing while male applicants have declined.

Locally, women are in the majority at the medical schools of Drexel, Temple, and Rowan Universities. (Cooper Medical School at Rowan also boasts one of the nation’s 28 female medical school deans.) Men hold a slim lead at Thomas Jefferson University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School. AAMC does not include osteopathic schools, but Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine said more women than men are enrolled there.

“The steady gains in the medical school enrollment of women are a very positive trend,” said AAMC president and CEO David J. Skorton. “We are delighted to see this progress.”

Still, studies show — and experts lament — that female physicians face a leadership and pay gap, and have higher rates of burnout as they struggle to balance work and family.

“When you couple the day-to-day stresses of being a physician, the long hours, and the enormous responsibilities, with the fact that 30% of women on medical faculties report experiencing sexual harassment, you have a recipe for burnout,” Nancy D. Spector, an associate dean and pediatrics professor at Drexel’s College of Medicine, said in a recent interview with The Inquirer.

Female doctors working in hospitals also contend with obstacles during pregnancy, parental leave, and return to work, according to a study last year in the Journal of Hospital Medicine.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia medical schools try alternative therapies to help students cope with stressful profession

Men still make up about 65% of practicing physicians, and relatively few women are in high-paid specialties such as orthopedic surgery and cardiology. But that is gradually changing as older doctors retire.

The ascendance of women may have beneficial clinical implications, research suggests. Patients treated by female physicians had lower odds of death and readmission compared with patients cared for by men, according to a 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The AAMC data show that traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups also continue to make gains. In 2019, about 5,800 Hispanics applied to medical schools, a 5% increase over the previous year, while the number who enrolled grew about 6% to 2,466. For African Americans, applicants rose almost 1% to 5,193, and enrollees increased 3% to 1,916 from 2018 to 2019.

» READ MORE: Too few black men become doctors. A medical student conference in Philly seeks to change that.

These “modest increases in enrollment are encouraging, but not enough,” AAMC president Skorton said. “We must do more to educate and train a more diverse physician workforce to care for a more diverse America.”

In all, applicants to medical schools rose by 1% from 2018 to 2019, to a record 53,371. More than 92,000 students were enrolled in the nation’s 154 allopathic medical schools.

Despite the growth, AAMC projects a national shortage of up to 122,000 physicians by 2030. The organization advocates that Congress increase the number of federally funded residency training positions.