“Women Serving Women” and the Myth of the Female Physician

Quality patient care has been a primary concern for healthcare providers throughout the course of American medicine, yet the meanings associated with the concept have changed over time.  For example, contemporary American medical discourse reflects an increased concern for patient preference, an issue that exists under the umbrella of patient demand.  Since the nation’s economic downturn in the early 2000’s, competition to expand and maintain patient volume has intensified, leading hospitals and private practices to look for ways to satisfy and retain patients (Hambsh, 2011).  In an attempt to meet demand, key decision makers such as private practice and hospital administrators and practicing physicians are translating the complex problem of patient preference into a clear-cut issue that can be met by and synonymous with a physician’s sex.  This is exemplified in the currently popular slogan, “women serving women,” which is primarily used by obstetricians and gynecologists (Ob/Gyns) (Malik, 2013), those in the area of midwifery (Sanford, 2012), physical therapists and practitioners of holistic medicine (Entrust, 2011; Omega, 2013) as an effort to recruit and retain patients (Hambsh, 2011).  This rhetorical device lays the foundation for a myth I refer to as the myth of the female physician.

I argue that the myth of the female physician is set in place by those in power as an attempt to redirect the public, suggesting patients’ needs are met through a simple request and visit with a female doctor.  This represses the complexity of healthcare and harms the progress of diversity in doctor-patient interactions.  Also, it works to reinforce the concept that gender exists as a binary between male and female doctors, thus placing the onus of performing a mythical type of femininity on the physician when, instead, we should focus on enhancing skills in interpersonally related areas such as empathy and active listening that are, indeed, a component of patient preference (Mavis et al., 2005, Sloop, 2004).  Using a standardized conception of women doctors as a space holder for patient preference may maintain a healthcare organization’s patient volume, but it fails to address the deeper needs and desires of individual patients and physicians.  Instead, the myth suggests that all female doctors, especially those in more feminized specialties, will innately match the desires of the patient.  Such a myth, I argue, discounts the importance of individual personas and interpersonal skills and, as Barthes (1988) suggests, will ultimately reinforce a false sense of intelligibility concerning women in medicine.

The emphasis on sex replaces actual concern for doctor-patient interaction with a series of superficial, disempowering ideals.  Therefore, we must engage in a critical analysis of this myth so we might come to a deeper understanding of patient preference.  The healthcare community, I argue, must move beyond the myth of the female physician and, instead, look to other discursive points of entry that will encourage productive forms of dialogue that complicate the qualities of a desirable physician (or undesirable physician, for that matter) so we can move toward richer methods of training and, ultimately, improve patient care.

Burke’s theory of myth argues that a myth can take on a powerful structural form that has the potential to influence a community’s sense making strategies at both the conscious and unconscious level.  With this in mind, the myth of the female physician and its corresponding sense making strategies have, I argue, serious sociocultural repercussions for the current and future state of healthcare.  Thus, it is important to expose and complicate the assumptions connected to the myth of the female physician and the discursive implications of “women serving women” as well as discuss the historical conditions under which a myth such as this can occur.  In an upcoming paper (soon to be posted), I interrogate the problematic assumptions that accompany the myth of the female physician.  I will use the work of Barthes (1988) and Burke (1950; 1974) to theoretically analyze my phenomenon of inquiry and situate their conceptualizations within the larger discursive frame of patient care.  Finally, I will conclude with ways in which the medical field might progress in a manner that celebrates an interpersonally skilled physician and the complexity of the healthcare industry.

Comedy in the News: Taleb’s Black Swan or the Blind Leading the Blind?

“The entire knowledge-seeking enterprise is based on taking conventional wisdom and accepted scientific beliefs and shattering them into pieces with new counterintuitive evidence, whether at a micro scale or at a larger one” (Taleb, 39).

Taleb’s statement leads me to reflect on the television news industry and comedy news consumption. The above quote may be applied to comedy news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in that they often shatter traditional news coverage by applying humor to perceived truth. Mocking current events may promote knowledge-seeking among viewers. If so, how might this ever growing, possibly nontraditional form of news decrease traditional news outlets’ power over public opinion formation.

Prior to comedians such as Stewart and Colbert, watching comedy news was considered outlier behavior, yet it has evolved into a mainstream consumption or, dare I say it, demand. That being said, comedy news remains scarce and may or may not have a heavy impact on its audience. The premise of comedy news shows such as The Colbert Report and The Daily Show is based upon Taleb’s third trait of a Black Swan, in that they “concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact (xxii).” Their “explanation” for current events is not a true explanation but rather a joke or a sarcastic jab at traditional news stations, the stories they cover, or the event itself.

In a way, The Colbert Report “makes sense” of an event for the viewer, leaving one with the duty of applying reason to sarcasm. Some may view this form of media as dangerous because of the responsibility that lies with the viewer. Wading through humor may appear too challenging for a viewer who is simply trying to obtain news. Comedy news calls attention to the idea that viewers often absorb rather than apply reason to traditional news stories. I view this “challenge” of balancing humor and current events as evidence as to why our society needs a miniature Black Swan such as The Colbert Report (Taleb, 2007).

I suggest comedy news may create or promote Taleb’s miniature Black Swans among audience members. The Colbert Report may encourage questioning of the status quo, which is precisely what Taleb suggests one do in order to stay above the influence of the norm. Stephen Colbert’s September 14th, 2010 show featured a segment on the controversial mosque debate occurring in New York City. For months, there has been a back and forth between citizens regarding whether a mosque near Ground Zero is appropriate.

Luther Campbell, a rapper turned journalist, wrote a piece for The Miami News Times, voicing his disdain for the mosque’s construction. Colbert uses Campbell’s article as fodder for his jab at the mosque controversy. Colbert pokes fun at the public for consuming news about the issue at such a rapid pace that we are willing to perceive the words of a rapper as a credible new source. As expected, Colbert applies humor to the story, thus presenting his argument in a not-so-subtle or subtle way, depending on the viewer and his/her own sense of humor and how frequent he/she watches the show.

Colbert quotes Campbell as saying, “Obama says we need to tolerate other religious views in a free country. I am not with that. Hell, no.” Featuring this ridiculous quote from a man who claims to be a journalist sheds light on the news industry. I do not know why this man is approved to publish for this paper, yet the fact that he is and people are reading him is the underlying jab Colbert is delivering.

Segments such as this lead audience members to laugh, think, or absorb. Information or knowledge-seeking actors who consume traditional television news as well as comedy news may be an example of Taleb’s skeptics.  It is important to note that simply watching comedy news does not qualify one as a skeptic. If one watches comedy news without reflection, than the show may deceive rather than inform, which is the same concept the program is fighting against.


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