The Medical Society of Sedgwick County partnered with three professors from the University of Kansas School of Medicine in a research project that looked at the experiences of female medical students of the 1960s and 70s whose stories defined women in medicine in mid-century middle America.
The authors are Anne Walling, MB, CHB, professor emerita and associate dean for faculty development, and Kari Nilsen, PhD, research educator and assistant professor, both in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at KUSM-Wichita, and Kimberly Templeton, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery at KUSM-Kansas City.
“We are actually expanding the project to KU Med female alumnae from prior to 1975 next, so it’s ongoing,” Nilsen said.
The researchers partnered with MSSC to identify female physicians older than 60 years. Almost all Wichita physicians have been MSSC members going back to its founding in 1903, the authors noted.Although the earliest record of a female physician in Wichita was in 1875, by the late 1960s, the MSSC only had 16 to 18 female members – around 4% of the total, the study found. In 2019, the 280 female MSSC members represented about 30% of the membership.
In fall 2018, the authors invited all women who had been MSSC members before 1990 and still lived in the area to participate in focus groups regarding their experiences in medical school and residency. There were 23 participants.
“Most of the group was strongly motivated by interest in the scientific and technical aspects of medicine. All expressed a ‘sense of vocation, being called to medicine’ and were motivated by the opportunity to do useful, challenging work,” the authors found.
Published online in August in the Women’s Health Reports journal, “The Only Woman in the Room: Oral Histories of Senior Women Physicians in a Midwestern City” looks at the experiences of women medical students who became doctors during a “crucial transitional decade” for women in American history.
“Although they came from very different backgrounds and trained in a variety of institutions and specialties, their stories revealed consistent themes, many of which remain relevant for female physicians,” the authors wrote.
These oral histories highlighted the many challenges and opportunities – including prejudice and hostility – that surrounded women in medicine over the past 50 years, the authors said. From the report:
“The female medical students of the 1960s and 1970s grew up in a world where medicine was almost exclusively a male profession. They faced significant discouragement and many challenges in making the unusual and often controversial decision to enter medicine. In medical school, they were a minority in a ‘hostile environment.’ In 1965, >85% of U.S. medical schools reported that fewer than 10% of students were women. Female medical students faced internal challenges over role conflict, stress, and anxiety as well as the isolation, resentment, harassment, and other institutional challenges that are well documented in contemporary reports.”
Focus group discussions revolved around several topics, including motivations to become a physician, family attitudes, experiences during medical school and residency, and experiences with co-workers and patients.
The authors credit these women and their unique experiences as medical students in the 1960s and ‘70s as helping shape today’s environment for women physicians, but much work still remains.
“It can never be taken for granted that positive changes in the culture of medicine will continue,” the authors wrote. “Despite significant progress, many of the concerns reported by these older female physicians are still valid. Many female physicians lack time to develop supportive networks, struggle to balance work and personal responsibilities, and are vulnerable to burnout and its attendant morbidities.”
To read the complete study, visit tinyurl.com/MSSC-KUstudy.