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The Gender Pay Gap Is a Threat to Medicine’s Future

Op-Med is a collection of original articles contributed by Doximity members.

Doximity recently released its “2019 Physician Compensation Report,” its third annual study of physician wages across the United States. Drawing on responses from thousands of physicians, “wages have begun to plateau” nationally for the first time, according to the report.

Of even greater concern, however, is the persistence of a wide gender pay gap among American physicians. Prior iterations of Doximity’s annual study have documented a substantial difference in the salaries of male and female American physicians, even after controlling for the length of time providers have practiced medicine and their self-reported average hours worked per week. The 2018 Physician Compensation Report, for example, found that female physicians made nearly 28 percent, or $105,000, less than male physicians.

This year’s compensation report found that the gender pay gap narrowed to its smallest figure since Doximity began its compensation surveys. But it shrunk in large part because pay for male physicians stagnated; pay for female physicians, in fact, increased by just 2 percent. The 2019 survey found that female physicians still make 25.2 percent (or $90,490) less than their male counterparts.

This current state of pay inequality in American medicine is deplorable. As with any other profession, there is no reason that female physicians should be paid any less for equal work than their male counterparts. The existence of a gender pay gap in itself reflects a profound moral failure within our field to act to correct gender imbalances. We must do better.

If medicine is to thrive in the future, it must become more hospitable to its female practitioners. Although the vast majority of American physicians have been male for decades, women are entering the field in ever greater numbers. In 2017, for the first time, the majority of new American medical students were women. And in 2018, for the first time since 2004, the majority of applicants to American medical schools were women.

There is plenty to cheer about in these new developments. Greater gender diversity brings new perspectives to the field, which may benefit patients and other providers alike. Women may be more likely to work with marginalized populations. And female physicians may engage in more patient-centered communication and spend more time with patients during office visits.

Additionally, female physicians may have better outcomes. A 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine also found that patients treated by female internists had lower 30-day rates of mortality and hospital readmissions. “There is evidence in the Primary Care setting suggesting that, compared with male physicians, female physicians are more likely to practice evidence-based medicine, perform as well or better on standardized examinations, and provide more patient-centered care,” the study’s authors wrote.

But even as women have become a larger share of the medical workforce, the field has not shared power with them equitably. Far too many women still experience higher barriers to career advancement than men. Partly as a result, women are less likely to be in positions of medical leadership. They are underrepresented on the boards of elite medical journals and as editors-in-chief and they are far less likely than men to serve as presidents of the most prestigious medical societies.

If we, as physicians, want to continue to see our patients reap the benefits of having more women in the medical workforce, we must push the field to embrace gender equality more rapidly than it has in the past. We need to make sure that women are paid equally for the same work, and that power is more equitably distributed between men and women. If we fail to make these changes, there is no guarantee that the field will continue to attract the best and brightest female students to become the next generation of doctors. Patients, male physicians, and the American medical system as a whole would suffer greatly.

This report should spur a recommitment to change the culture of American medicine. We all should commit to making sure that our female colleagues are paid equally for equal work, and are given a fair shot at obtaining leadership positions in the field. With enough activism, maybe next year’s report will be different.

Dr. Kunal Sindhu is a resident physician in New York City and a 2018-2019 Doximity Author. You can follow him on Twitter @sindhu_kunal.

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