The Thinking 

Women Doctors Change the Culture of Medicine

April 2, 2011


WOMEN, because of their natural empathy, make better doctors than men. An article in today’s New York Times illustrates why this widely-held belief is false. The entry of large numbers of women into the medical profession has diminished the level of dedication and personal care. Doctors who are mothers are empathetic. But they are empathetic to their children too. They don’t want to work the hours demanded by the traditional medical practice and prefer bureaucratically-administered hospital or clinical jobs that come with regular shifts. 

The grandfather of a woman who is a doctor comments on the changes. “My son and I had deeper feelings for our patients than I think Kate will ever have,” Dr. William Dewar II said over lunch at a diner in Honesdale, about 30 miles northeast of Scranton. Munching on a club sandwich, Dr. William Dewar III gestured toward the diner’s owner, who had greeted them deferentially.

“I’ve had three generations of his family under my care,” he said as a waitress brought his usual Diet Coke without being asked. “Kate will never have that.”

In other words, empathy is most meaningful when it occurs in the context of ongoing relationships, not brief, impersonal encounters. One wonders whether many women doctors find themselves choosing jobs that are inherently less satisfying to them than the traditional practice would be. The aspirations that made them choose medicine – to express both intellect and nurture – may be thwarted by these compromises. Ironically, there is no job that more completely allows a woman to express both intellect and nurture than motherhood.

William Dewar’s grandaughter chose a hospital job so she can spend time with her children. When she was pregnant, she declined to treat patients with the flu because she was (understandably) concerned about her own health. The older man does not address the question as to why this family of doctors encouraged a woman to be a doctor in the first place.

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