San Francisco — Dr. Laura Scrimgeour had never met a female cardiothoracic surgeon until she met Dr. Amy Fiedler.
“I think it’s a real problem for women in medicine in all fields, but particularly in surgery,” Scrimgeour told CBS News.
Scrimgeour is a fellow working under Fiedler at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, and the two are among just a handful of women in their field.
“I get mistaken for a nurse,” Fiedler said. “I get mistaken for a physical therapist, one time for food service. I mean, pretty much anything other than being the cardiac surgeon.”
Women were 32% more likely to die if treated by a male surgeon rather than a female one, a study from the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine found. The study also determined that men were less likely to die at the hands of female surgeons.
“Even just to have one person to look up to can make all the difference for some people,” Scrimgeour said.
Even though more than 50% of medical school students are women, a gender gap remains in top specialties, according to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Only 8% of thoracic surgeons are women, the AAMC found.
Fiedler and Scrimgeour said getting more women in leadership at hospitals can lead to better family leave policies and more opportunities for female physicians. Patients can also help by requesting female doctors.
“We’re thinking about and trying to figure out how we can get more women, get more people of color, get more diversity at the higher ends of academic leadership,” Fiedler said.
Dr. Charlene Blake is a cardiac anesthesiologist who was on a UCSF team that made history in December when it became what is believed to be the first all-female heart transplant team.
“I had to look around the room,” Blake said. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re all women here. This is incredible. I haven’t seen this before.'”
“Every single person in that room that day that we did that heart transplant deserved to be there and is a high performer and was providing the absolute best care to that patient,” Fiedler added. “And I think that’s really inspiring.”