By Asha Karippot, MD
In a 2018 New York Times article, the writer cites two separate studies, indicating that patients—both men and women—tend to have better outcomes when their treating physician is a woman. However, as a female physician, I have encountered patients who tend not to agree.
One experience that particularly stands out was with a male patient with metastatic colon cancer. I had done my due diligence of reviewing his medical documents in great detail and had a plan of care in my mind as I walked in to see him in the consultation room. As we greeted each other and started conversation, I noticed a sense of uneasiness that was evident in his face. I went through my routine of asking questions about his history and physical condition. Then I started to discuss my assessment and plan of care. Even though his condition was highly complex, I was very confident in my treatment approach, as I had handled similar situations several hundred times in my career. After his visit with me, I got a notification through my office staff that the patient requested to switch to a male oncologist for no other reason than he didn't want a female physician.
This experience isn’t isolated. According to an article by the American Medical Association, more than 70% of female physicians have reported discrimination, “which includes disparaging or disrespectful treatment or comments, lack of career promotion, and disparities in resources, rewards and reimbursement. There is additional discrimination at all levels of their careers for women in racial or ethnic minority groups.”
Personally, I have been in countless situations where patients preferred to see a male physician instead of me, simply based on gender bias, while other times a patient preferred a physician of a different race or ethnicity due to racial bias. In situations like this, I would often analyze whether it was a result of something I had done personally, but I am learning that no matter who we are or what part of the country we are from, when you are around people, you are also around their personal biases and preferences. How someone responds to you typically has more to do with their internal beliefs than it does with who you are as an individual. But these moments can certainly make you feel discouraged, which is yet another reason why creating a support system is important. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented and empathetic male and female physicians, who all encourage and support me in times like these.
Every physician wants the same thing for their patients—to help them feel heard and valued, and to offer the best practice of medicine that they can, regardless of gender or race. However, I have learned from years in practice that how you may be perceived based on your gender, ethnicity, or other social biases may come into play during your experience with a patient. In those instances, it is important to remind yourself that personal preferences don’t actually have anything to do with you; instead, they are a result of the patient’s experience. I encourage you not to take these situations personally, even though sometimes it’s difficult not to. Try to focus only on what you do best: delivering the same high-quality care to every person who comes through your door.
Dr. Karippot serves as a medical oncologist and hematologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dr. Karippot is the current chair for the CTCA Tulsa Commission on Cancer Committee. She is a member of the Practice Guidelines Implementation Network for ASCO Clinical Practice Guidelines. Dr. Karippot also is a member of several organizations, including the American Society of Hematology, ASCO, European Society of Medical Oncology, Society of Immunotherapy of Cancer, and North American Neuroendocrine Tumor Society. Follow her on Twitter @AshaKarippot.