Women have come a long way since the time of Irma LeVasseur, the first French-Canadian woman to become a doctor. At a time when women were prohibited from studying medicine in Quebec, she obtained her doctorate degree in medicine in the United States in 1900, and then fought to have her right to practise recognized in the province, in 1903. Dr. LeVasseur devoted her career to pediatrics and allied herself with other women, such as Justine Lacoste-Beaubien, to found the first French-language children’s hospital in Montréal, CHU Sainte-Justine, now recognized worldwide for the excellence of its care.
Dr. LeVasseur is one of the pioneers who paved the way for generations of female physicians in Quebec. We collectively owe her a great deal, because a woman’s decision to become a doctor benefits all of society.
A great step forward
Women were gatekept out of practising medicine as recently as the beginning of the last century. It is a truly impressive feat that they now outnumber men physicians in Quebec! In fact, medicine is one of the only traditionally male sectors where we can confidently say that the glass ceiling has been shattered in Quebec. Over the years, numerous studies have revealed the unique qualities of female physicians, such as a tendency to be better communicators and team players, which can have a positive effect on patients in general, but especially on women patients. A study conducted by the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine and recently published in JAMA Surgery examined the postoperative outcomes of more than 1.3 million female patients. It found that they were 32% less likely to die and 16% less likely to experience complications if their surgeon was also female.
We still have work to do
The influx of women into medicine is more than just a heartening statistic—it has crucial implications that the government must take into account in any future plans to redesign care. Case in point: Bill 11, which aims to increase the supply of primary care services by general practitioners. Here, I could have said “female general practitioners,” as nearly 70% of family physicians under the age of 60 are women. Despite the professional and personal advances of recent years, women are still in charge of taking care of the family, and that’s not including time off work due to pregnancy or to care for a newborn. The government needs to be cautious in its approach to improving patient management by female general practitioners, as they may be willing to accept a penalty rather than increase their already demanding workload. My colleagues are brave, empathetic women who deserve their place in the health care system—a place they worked so hard to carve out for themselves. Let us hope that they are not penalized for their own success and that they can continue to provide Quebecers with the excellent care they are already known for.
Katharine Smart, M.D.
President, Canadian Medical Association
This commentary was originally published in Profession Santé