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As Women Become OB-GYN Norm, Residency Programs Focus On Recruiting Men

Alex Olgin/ WFAE

Incoming obstetricians and gynecologists are mostly women. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent men. Even in a field where there are only female patients, many of whom say they prefer female doctors, some residency programs are still trying to recruit males for the sake of diversity.   

Dr. Katie Merriam turns off her pager as she leaves a 12-hour day on the labor and delivery shift.

“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” she said. “It’s another limb. I always know where it is.”

The third-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology at the Carolinas Medical Center hospital in Charlotte is in a field all about women, that's dominated by woman. Merriam said she feels a special connection to her patients.

“You can feel what they feel and understand why they feel certain ways,” she said. “I do feel a special bond.”

In 2016, 82 percent of doctors matching into OB-GYN residency programs are women, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Merriam’s residency class is a bit of an anomaly because it is half men.  Merriam said it’s nice to work with so many women, though she and some of her female colleagues like the balance men bring to the work environment.

“No one could really pinpoint what balance [men] bring but there’s something nice about having them,” she said.

Merriam said it’s important to have men in the field to give patients options, especially because there’s a shortage of OB-GYNs in a lot of places.

But according to Merriam, most of her friends want female doctors. That was true of a number of women I spoke with at a place where a lot of females go - a hair and nail salon. 

Latasia Black said, “I prefer a female than a male.”

“I prefer to have a female honestly,” said Quionda Duke.

Jessica Cooper said, “I would prefer a female.”

The responses don't surprise Blake Butterworth, a male fourth-year obstetrics and gynecology resident at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

“I don’t get discouraged and I don’t get offended," Butterworth said. "I gladly hand that patient off." 

In his experience, patients request female doctors less often than he expected. He’s one of only two male residents in his medical school class.

“What I find rewarding is sometimes you’ll have those patients that are like 'uhh I have to see a guy and that’s ok. Send him in,' ” he said. "Then you end up developing rapport with her and she says 'I expected you to be XYZ and you were better than that.' ”

Butterfield said OB-GYN doctors often establish long-term relationships with patients and that's one reason why he went into the field. He said obstetrics and gynecology weren’t on his radar before his rotation in medical school, partly because of the stereotype that it’s a female field.

“As males, we don’t really understand the full variety and breadth of the specialty,” Butterworth said. “But I think once you really get into it and get involved in it, I don’t think that bias holds true.”

Butterworth said he believes it's incumbent on male OB-GYNs to talk to male medical students about the field, as well as dispel myths he was told - like it will be hard to find work as a man.

In fact, Dr. Ashlyn Savage with MUSC said it may be the opposite.   

“We might consider an applicant with a slightly lower board score just to enhance how many men we are interviewing and considering,” said Savage.

She said men are now considered by some residency programs as a diversity pick. Savage said she is conflicted about how important it is to bring in men, compared to searching for a doctor pool with more racial or ethnic diversity.

“The primary motivation to do so is that patients might have the option to seek out providers who feel like themselves,” she said. “In this particular case, by nature, all patients for OB-GYNs are women.”

It’s not that care suffers from fewer men, but Savage said it’s good to have a diversity of perspective in the workforce. The field is now 59 percent women, which is about the same in both North and South Carolina. More younger doctors are women while more older doctors tend to be men. 

“Leadership tends to be held by those who are older,” Savage said, “And we are still in a scenario where our older faculty tend to be more men.”

A 2017 study in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women are underrepresented in department leadership roles around the country. The ratio was the worst in South. But, Savage just found out, the incoming residents for next year at MUSC will be all female.