For first time, more women apply to med school

Career gains attraction for those who want family

January 01, 2004|By Stuart Silverstein | Stuart Silverstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Kirsten Mewaldt's sense of idealism prodded her to apply to medical school. She sees practicing medicine as a way to serve humanity.

But Mewaldt, like many other women, also sees a big practical benefit to becoming a physician: With the changes in the profession in recent years, it has increasingly become an attractive career for someone who wants to balance work with raising children.

"One of the things that's great about medicine is the flexibility," said Mewaldt, a second-year medical student at the University of Southern California, offering an opinion that defies the traditional reputation of a profession with little time for family life.

"I'm considering going into emergency medicine, and that has a wonderful lifestyle if you're considering having a family," she said. "You can do three 12-hour shifts a week, and then you're not on call. You're done. You can be home with your kids, pick them up from school, and actually be around."

More women than men

That new image, medical educators say, helps explain why the profession has crossed a major threshold. The Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Medical Colleges reported last month that, for the first time on record, more women than men applied for admission to U.S. medical schools.

For this year's freshman medical school classes, the association said, 50.8 percent of the 34,785 applicants were women. The percentage of female students enrolling in medical school was only slightly lower, at 49.7 percent of the 16,538 first-year students.

What's more, mainly because of the increase in female applicants, the overall number was up more than 3 percent, ending six straight years of declines.

Applicant totals remain far below the levels of the mid-1990s. Education officials say the declining financial prospects for doctors, and the economic boom in the late 1990s that opened up lucrative opportunities in other fields, persuaded many potential medical school candidates to look elsewhere.

Still, in recent years, female applicants have started picking up the slack, reflecting the growing number of women attending college and earning bachelor's degrees.

Experts say the gender trend in medical school applications has also been aided by a shift in medicine over the past few decades from private to group practice, including health maintenance organizations. That enables doctors to share responsibilities and have more opportunity to work part-time or to otherwise arrange family friendly work schedules.

For USC, too, the 2003-2004 freshman medical school class was the first since the medical school was founded in 1885 to draw more female applicants than men. And nearly half, or 78, of the current 160 students enrolled in USC's first-year class are women.

Female applicants "just don't feel the barriers anymore," said Erin A. Quinn, associate dean of admissions at USC's Keck School.

Likewise, USC's overall number of applicants, 4,656, marked a nearly 5 percent increase from the year before. The most recent figures for next year's freshman class at USC show that the overall number of applicants, and the percentage of women, will be up once again. Nationally, the outlook is similar.

Many jobs, good pay

Job opportunities for female medical school graduates should be plentiful. Even with the influx of female physicians, various surveys have pointed to a doctor shortage developing over the next 20 years.

Although medicine isn't the path to wealth that it once was, it remains a high-paying field. A survey by Medical Economics magazine found that U.S. doctors earned an average of $162,000 last year. Male doctors averaged $180,000 and women $125,000.

That income gap at least partly stemmed from the lower-paying specialties where female doctors are concentrated, such as internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, family practice, and pediatrics. Women remain scarce in surgical fields.

Medical educators say many of their students, including the women, are less concerned about pay than previous generations of doctors.

For instance, Mewaldt, a graduate of Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., said she had friends "who graduated from college, went right into investment banking, and some of them were making six figures. It was, like, wow. But that never persuaded me. I knew I wanted to go into medicine more, because I felt it was a calling."

Another sign of the times: Nine of this year's medical school seniors at the University of California-Los Angeles are women with children - the most mothers ever in a UCLA medical school graduating class.

"Women have decided there's no reason you can't have families while you're in medical school or after you graduate," said Neil H. Parker, senior associate dean for student affairs and graduate medical education at UCLA.

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