I work with four other medical students at the family medicine clinic. I am the only female medical student — our attending is also male. Although my male colleagues and I work at the same clinic with the same patient population, only recently did I begin to notice that we have vastly different experiences working with the patients we see. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve encountered about three to four patients who have confessed to me that they would rather talk to the physician directly, rather than to a medical student.
During these encounters, I am often only given permission to go as far as taking their vitals. Occasionally, I am able to press further and extract more information about their visit and why they presented to the office, but usually not much more. They might give me an overview about why they want to see the doctor but they won’t go into specifics about why they are there. Oftentimes, they tell me, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll speak to the doctor when he gets here.”
Understandably, it makes sense why a person would want to see their primary care physician over a medical student. I have brushed off experiences like these, attributing them to a multitude of reasons. Perhaps they don’t want to repeat themselves twice, or they’re more comfortable speaking with the physician with whom they already have a relationship. Perhaps it could be for a number of other reasons. Recently though, I jokingly asked my male colleagues — who are students too — “Does this ever happen to you guys?” They looked at me with confusion and a little bit of laughter on their faces. None of them had ever run into an experience like this. Interestingly enough, all of their patients choose to talk to them. Many of them speak freely about their medical history, unwarranted. In fact, many of my male colleagues’ patients mistake them for doctors.
Are people more comfortable in a medical setting being attended to by a male member of the health care team? Or do they just think I, as a woman, am incompetent in comparison to my male counterparts? What surprises me the most about these situations is that all patients still get the chance to see their primary care physician whether or not they speak to me, so I am not imposing on their opportunity to have a conversation with and to be seen by their physician. Disappointingly, even after explaining this to the patients, they still have not wanted to be seen by me. In conjunction with the knowledge I have about my male colleague’s experiences, it makes me wonder, is there a bias against female physicians and physicians-in-training? Against women of color? Or does it just so happen that I have worked with the patients who are very particular about the types of members of the health care team they want to be seen by?
It is difficult to stop myself from analyzing every one of these encounters once I realize this issue was particular to me — and only happening to me — in the same place surrounded by my peers. It makes me question my own abilities as a future physician and wonder if there is something I am lacking in comparison to the other students I work with. Once the feeling of self doubt creeps up on you, it has a lingering effect.
What I have come to learn is that questioning myself is the last thing I should do. We should always work towards becoming more educated and aware as physicians. Despite this, we must not entertain the instinct to question our capabilities when we know we have the merit and work ethic capable of being remarkable medical practitioners. When other people doubt our adequacy, we should not tell ourselves, “Maybe they are right.” Instead, let’s push ourselves to internalize that our training and experiences built us to be phenomenal doctors.
Medicine is a constant game of questioning, investigating and exploring answers. If I am not confident in myself to embody this, how can I expect that from others? As they say: Confidence is key. I am determined to become more dominant and not shy away from allowing my presence to take up the room. When my capabilities are questioned, I commit to pushing back. Of course, not at the expense of a patient’s comfort, but through candid dialogue focused on patient-centered care — delving deeping into their expectations from the visit, outlining what it is that I offer, and highlighting how I can enhance their visit through something as simple as having unlimited time to focus on their concerns while the doctor may be busy with other patients. As women in medicine, we must channel our determination into staying resolute and establish our presence as exceptional medical providers, demanding to be seen and demanding to be respected.