For the first time, women made up the majority of medical school applicants for the current academic year, spurring a rise in the total number of applicants after six consecutive years of decline, the Association of American Medical Colleges reports.
In its report released yesterday, the AAMC says medical schools received 34,785 applications for the 2003-2004 school year, a 3.4% increase over last year and the first increase since 1996. Of that number, 50.8% were women, though women accounted for just under half of actual entrants at 49.7%.
But reports suggest this new majority of women might not bode well for a growing shortage of physicians that recruiters have long identified but is just beginning to be acknowledged by federal planners and the AMA.
Various studies show that while women physicians take more time with patients and have a lower rate of malpractice lawsuits, they concentrate in specialties that have few reported shortages and work fewer hours per week than male physicians.
This rough profile of women physicians suggests that as women inch toward a majority of medical school graduates, greater numbers of new physicians will be needed to do the same amount of work done now.
And the trend of more women medical students means that specialties like orthopedic surgery, anesthesiology and cardiology, which have comparatively few women, could continue to face the worst shortages.
The decline of males applying to medical schools started in 1997 but leveled off this year, the AAMC report adds.
In residency training, meanwhile, women already held the majority in six major specialties and subspecialties as of in August 2002, according to a report by the AMA in the Sept. 3, 2003, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The fields were OB/GYN (73.7% women), pediatrics (66.7%), dermatology (56.0%), geriatrics (52.9%), rheumatology (51.8%) and psychiatry (50.7%). In addition, family practice is 49.9% female, the JAMA report says.
Of these women-dominated fields, only dermatology and rheumatology are on a list of specialties that are considered "very difficult" to recruit, according to the physician-recruiting firm Merritt, Hawkins in Irving, Texas.
Other specialties on the Merritt, Hawkins list, listed in order of need, had relatively low percentages of women residents, according to the JAMA report: orthopedic surgery (9.0% women), anesthesiology (27.0%), cardiology (16.7%), radiology (25.7%) and urology (13.9%),
But women physicians also bring advantages to the profession as a whole. While women now make up only 20% of the physician population, only 6% of physician malpractice cases go against women, according to a September report by John Paling, a researcher at the Risk Communication Institute in Gainesville, Fla.
According to Merritt, Hawkins, the AMA reports that women physicians may spend more time per patient than men.
On the other hand, women physicians work 18% fewer hours per week than male physicians, Merritt, Hawkins reports, citing the AMA.