Women in white female doctors shape profession

January 3, 2010
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One hundred sixty-three years after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female doctor in the U.S. — after being rejected by 10 medical schools — the two women who lead Kent County’s medical societies reflected on their experiences in medicine.

The number of women doctors over the past few decades — today, half of medical students are women — may have gotten a boost from societal attitudes affecting men, according to Dr. Anita Avery and Dr. Karlin Sevensma.

Dr. Anita Avery, president of the Kent County Medical Society, said that society is more accepting of her homemaker husband, Jeff, who is the main caretaker for their three children, ages 9, 6 and 1.

“I give my husband a lot of credit,” she said. “I would not be able to take on leadership with the society or other professional activities outside of my practice if it weren’t for the fact that he was at home. That’s a decision we made early on in my training: that when we had children, he would stay at home.

“Some of his friends will suggest that he’s got it easy or he’s got it great, and he educates them about how much work it is to run a household. It’s not just a matter of taking care of the kids, it’s running the whole household and there’s a lot of responsibility. That’s a full-time job, as most women know and will tell you, but many men don’t necessarily realize that, so he’s happy to educate people on that.”

Dr. Karlin Sevensma is president of the Kent County Osteopathic Association and a general surgeon practicing at Metro Health Hospital. Her husband, Mike Tyson, is a nurse at Spectrum Health’s Blodgett Hospital.

“We’re here and we’re at the table, but there still are a lot of ways for things to get better for female physicians,” said Sevensma, who has had a unique view of women in medicine as the daughter of Dr. Susan Sevensma, who is a board member of the Michigan Osteopathic Association, and in 2008 was MOA president.

Sevensma was a Grand Rapids elementary school student when her mother returned to college at Grand Valley State University, eventually earning a medical degree in 1982 at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I was 7 when she went to medical school, so my dad stayed home and took care of us and my mom went to be a doctor. Let me tell you, I know how weird that is, at least from a kid’s perspective in the 1970s, where dads didn’t stay at home. That was the not the way things went,” said Sevensma, 37, who also counts a grandfather, great-grandfather, uncle and cousins in the ranks of doctors. “I know how it’s evolved in the last 30 years.”

It’s the second time that leaders of both county medical societies are women, said Patricia Dalton, acting executive director of the societies. Terms expire in 2010 for both women.

Women doctors have become so common that the Michigan State Medical Society’s Women’s Section was disbanded a couple of years ago, spokesman David Fox said, because women’s issues no longer stood out from the society’s goals as a whole.

“There are still many times that I go into committee meetings and I will be the only woman in the room, or one of just one or two other women in the room,” said Dr. Rose Ramirez, a family practice doctor. Ramirez was the first woman president of the Kent County Medical Society in 2000, and currently is the Michigan State Medical Society’s speaker of the house and president of the Physicians Organization of Western Michigan.

“As more, younger women have entered medicine and are getting through their child-bearing years, they will enter leadership. That is my hope,” she added.

Michigan State University College of Human Medicine Dean Marsha Rappley said she has witnessed changes from the time she started in the field as a nurse, such as paternity leave and elder care accommodations for men.

“That change comes around really because women in the work force brought a more family-centered orientation toward organizing work,” Rappley said.

Despite the numbers of women in medical school and training, those numbers tend to diminish in professional life as women try to forge a life that includes their vocation as well as child-rearing, she added.

“I think that what’s striking — and it occurs in other professions and business across the country — while women are at least half of the student population and are increasing as residents, the number of women actually in leadership positions hangs around 10 to 12 percent. It has stayed there despite the large increase in the number of women coming into the system,” Rappley said. “There are lots of traditions that are difficult for women to reconcile with life outside their work.”

Avery and Sevensma both say they have adjusted their schedules to be available for both patient and family needs as much as possible.

“As a mom, there’s things we want to be involved with,” said Avery, 38, an obstetrician-gynecologist for Advantage Health who practices at Saint Mary’s Health Care. “We want to be involved with our children’s schools and school-related activities; we want to be home for bedtime, for meals when we can. So there is that tug of trying to fulfill our responsibilities and obligations to our patients and at the same time be available and home for our children.”

Avery said she has one day off per week and works slightly shorter hours three days a week to be available to her children. “Those types of little adjustments have come along the way,” said Avery, a native of The Netherlands who emigrated to Canada at age 8 and moved to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College. She has been in practice in Grand Rapids for seven years.

Sevensma — who expects to earn a black belt in karate this spring and speaks Russian — said she also adjusts her hours to spend time with her children, ages 9 and 5. Unlike many doctors today who are seeking employment situations with hospitals or large practices, Sevensma for a variety of reasons left her original practice and now is a solo surgeon. 

“I was employed for the first two years of my practice, and until I left that situation, I didn’t have a whole lot of say about my schedule,” she said. “So I’ve made it the way I’ve wanted it to be, just because I’ve wanted it to be that way. It’s not that somebody showed up one day and said, ‘You know, we’ve heard that women want more time with their families.’ It was me, getting it to happen.”

Sevensma and Avery joined forces this fall to muster local M.D.’s and D.O.’s for a “white coat march” in Lansing to protest a proposed 3 percent tax on doctors’ incomes to raise money for the state’s Medicaid program. Dozens of local doctors made the trip, and the tax quickly disappeared from the Legislature’s agenda.

The role of county medical societies is changing, Avery said. The KCMS has a seven-member board; for 2009, six of them were men.

“It used to be more of a social way for doctors across town and across the county to meet each other and have referral sources and so on,” Avery said.  “And now, more and more, physicians are employed in these large groups and have their referral lines set up within their own structure, so we are actually trying to sort out how we can be most relevant to our members.”

Sevensma works with a six-member board, currently all women. She said her main duty is to organize delegates to the state association and to take on an advocacy role when it’s needed.

The two groups have launched a search for a new executive director and moved offices into the Masonic Temple building at 233 E. Fulton St.

Avery said she believes there is value and opportunity in unity and leadership.

“I think it’s an opportunity to help represent physicians in areas that we may not all be able to individually address,” she said. “As an individual, there’s things that you feel there’s no time to do or no connection or ability to influence, whereas in an organized structure, there is an opportunity to make a difference.”

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