A man’s word on women doctors
By: WILKINSON, Jim
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A popular book suggests women are from another planet… they are certainly different from us chaps. Failure to understand that women are different can even kill a female patient – did you know that injudicious salt –poor intravenous fluids are much more likely to cause cerebral oedema, convulsions and death in menstrual age women than adult males? The difference appears to be related to the effects of female sex hormones on sodium pump mechanisms in brain cells. 1
We males in the profession live with a tradition founded by blokes – kudos, prestige, status (even if under constant attack), an ethos that can put work and career above all else, generally good incomes etc. The down side can be broken marriages and estranged, rebellious kids who really needed a dad, not a medical workaholic.
Women doctors have to cope in this man-made environment but, unless they
are single, have to be homemakers and mothers too. There may not be
enough hours in the day to do all this.
Yet few males seem interested in understanding a woman’s perspective on work and career. In 1996 I attended the World Meeting of Anaesthetists in Sydney, a huge affair with 10,000 delegates ably run by my old dissecting buddy, Professor Richard Walsh from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Richard’s team had listed a seminar on “Gender Issues” . Interested, I attended. It was certainly a treat being in the same room as about 500 intelligent , attractive women. The lady chairperson rose to welcome the audience, making special mention of the men who were present – all two of us, the other being the famous pioneer Swedish anaesthetist, Torsten Gordh ( of Gordh needle fame). Where, I pondered, were all the Directors of Departments or Training, half of whose charges these days are likely to be female? Maybe a sleep inducing talk on muscle relaxant infusions was a safer course than being seen at a sissy seminar for the girls. They should have been hearing how the ladies tried to cope with competing demands of work, specialist training, spouse, children and household.
A “stand out” at the Gender Issues session and the Conference generally was a lady Professor from Nigeria. Tellingly she said, “I’m a Professor of Anaesthesia and my husband is Professor of Medicine. We drive to the same hospital in the one car, both do our day’s work, then drive home together. Whereupon he relaxes on the couch and puts his feet up while I start cooking the family dinner.” (Her husband had the presence of mind to stay in Nigeria and not attend this seminar!).
Career women seem to have one thing in common with the male obstetricians care for them – all are chronically sleep deprived and exhausted and all for good reason. Without meaning any disrespect, this may be why our obstetricians and many women doctors (not all) have been relatively weak in fighting assaults on the profession by governments – they are simply just too tired. Survival and sleep are their greater concerns.
We live close to a busy suburban rail station. For years I’ve watched the commuters, from Sydney’s northwest mortgage belt, park the car at an early hour, dash for the train, then reappear at dusk for the drive home. They all look tired and stressed but the women have not only the briefcase to bear – there’s the hastily bought food shopping for the hungry family waiting at home. No arm chair and slippers await these women.
When head of my Anaesthetic Department some years back, I was asked politely by a lady anaesthetist if I could reduce her roster commitment. I did one better for her – I took her off the roster entirely for a long period. She had recently returned to work after the birth of her third child and she was chronically exhausted. To risk an anaesthetic disaster at a 3 am Caesarean because she was exhausted was in no one’s best interest. Yet for this I was loudly and publicly criticized by a few younger male colleagues. I stood my ground.
One male surgeon I’ve heard of does lots of extra on call duty – his colleagues only too happy to relinquish the chore. Of course, his resident is then faced with twice the after care load of other surgical teams. If that resident happens to be a woman with a family, is it right that they all should suffer from “Sir’s” workaholic disorder? I think not.
Sure, women are not all angels – ask any guard in a women’s prison. They can be cunning, seductive and manipulating. They can turn on the tears with great effect. But if they have a family, or wish to start one, or even if they don’t, their priorities can be quite different from those of single minded males. So what if they can only give 30 or 40 skilled hours a week to the profession and not 70? If it takes two women to manage as many patients as one male, so what? The girls already pay big prices for competing in a man’s world. Limiting or delaying a family is one. A higher risk of breast cancer through delayed breast feeding is another. A third is a two to four fold risk of suicide in women doctors compared to the general female population. 2, 3.
We males could learn a thing or two from the ladies about priorities in life. Sure we need our dedicated hard working male medicos. But over the years I’ve seen more than one who thought he was indispensable drop dead prematurely. Next day, someone else is there taking over – business as usual. And the grieving children all wish they seen a bit more of Dad.
1 Arieff I, Hyponatraemia,convulsions, respiratory arrest and permanent brain damage
after elective surgery in healthy women. NEJM Vol 1314 No 24 June 12, 1986, p 1529
2 BBC News (Internet) 10 April 2001
3 Schernhammer ES & Colditz, G. Suicide Rates among physicians: a quantitative and
gender assessment. Am Journal of Psychiatry 2004 Dec; 161 (12) 2295 – 302
Jim Wilkinson is a retired Sydney anaesthetist. He has enjoyed 30 years
of wedded bliss and has four adult children, three of them daughters. He
assists the NSW Medical Board with supervising impaired doctors.