Medicine’s Disruptive Force
Guest post by Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen, a first-year medical student in the Class of 2023 at McGill University. We welcome blog posts on topics of interest to Canadian women in medicine. Check our Contributor’s Page for more info.
Medicine’s Disruptive Force
There is this Heritage Canada short on Jennie Trout that I will never forget. It opens at the University of Toronto in 1871. The professor points to an “organ” that he can’t name because of the “presence of the weaker sex” — Jennie Trout and one other female medical student (the only two, actually). As the men keep shouting for them to be kicked out, Trout loses her patience, stands up and screams at the professor, threatening to tell his wife everything. As the classroom calms down, she rips the paper covering the male reproductive organ and sits down. She would go on to be the first woman to practice medicine in Canada.
Trout was not the first, nor the last, to confront these kinds of hurdles throughout her professional career. Despite that, the role of women and gender minorities in medicine has increased drastically in the past decades and has been beneficial to our society. Some recent findings suggest that patients who receive care from female physicians have similar and sometimes better outcomes in terms of mortality and readmission rates compared to their male peers. There is evidence that men and women practice medicine differently as women tend to communicate in a more patient-centered way, provide more psychosocial counselling and preventive care. Additionally, they are more likely to carry out better standardized examinations as they follow more thorough clinical guidelines than their male counterparts.
It was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who said “Medicine is so broad a field, so closely interwoven with general interests that it must be regarded as one of those great departments of work in which the cooperation of men and women is needed to fulfill all its requirements.” The more perspectives we include, the better the quality of our care. Diversity and inclusion don’t just benefit medical students or the field itself, but most importantly, our patients. Moreover, community-based practice has greatly benefitted from having male and female doctors as some patients might be more comfortable consulting a woman due to personal or cultural preferences. Having more options gives the patient the freedom to choose and raises the likelihood of treatment compliance. Having more ethnocultural and gender diversity within the working medical body also allows a better understanding of Canada’s diverse population.
The same can be said for clinical and research leadership to tackle undiagnosed diseases that are prevalent amongst female patients. For instance, cardiovascular disease disproportionately kills 31,000 women in Canada annually because the current medical literature on heart disease and stroke does not accurately represent minorities and women.Indeed, even today, most of the scientific research is based on the standard healthy Caucasian male. With more female doctors in positions of power, women will no longer go unrepresented as policy and research will produce more inclusive data and practical guidelines for all.
In order to respect the Hippocratic oath, which is “first do no harm,” we have to constantly question norms and change the course of medical history to be more inclusive of marginalized groups. Indeed, not less than two hundred years ago, the predominant ideas about physiology underpinned the concept of separate spheres for women and men, where women were confined to the private sphere of the household and men were exposed to the outside world. As change is the only constant, we have to strive to improve job opportunities and access of certain specialities, such as opportunities in surgery, to women. Furthermore, we still have a long way to go in terms of mental health and wellness, as women disproportionately experience the adverse effects of stress, “impostor” syndrome and other burdens such as family planning.
As diversity is rising across the patient spectrum, we want to make the medical workplace more representative, supportive and academically sound in order to accurately treat and heal all citizens. Collectively, we have greatly benefitted from gender equity, equal pay and same rights in multiple work sectors, and medicine is not an exception. Changing medicine to be a more inclusive and diverse workplace will directly impact lives and patient care and allow us all to move forward. Now that we have broken the glass ceiling, the next step is making this profession more financially accessible.
Anne Xuan-Lan Nguyen
Class of 2023
Anne is the recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s medal, the Governor General’s medal and the Sovereign Medal for volunteers. She is actively involved in her community with experience in grassroot community service, social advocacy and policy making and has a strong interest in gender equity, global health, research and health care innovation.