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The History (and Future) of Women in Health Care

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, a look at past giants and current pioneers

Everside Health has been celebrating Women’s History Month all March long, spotlighting a few of our talented and hard-working teammates. If you missed them, check out the stories behind Vice President of Teammates Experience Marney Andes; Director of Analytics Product Development Jasmine Wazaney; Director of Population Health Stache’ Smith; and Regional Medical Director Nancy Plemmons.

But it’s also fruitful to look at the wider landscape in health care and see those who laid the earliest foundations for women. And, an additional look at those contributing to valuable work today.

But first, a fun fact: 

A 2017 study by McKinsey found that organizations positioned in the top quartile in inclusion of women on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

What does this mean? Women in leadership roles is about more than just diversity and inclusion. It makes for a more intelligent business!

The Giants Who Preceded Us

These trendsetters share a common legacy: they broke down preconceived notions of what women were capable of in the field of medicine and opened doors that had been shut for decades.

Elizabeth Blackwell, MD

If you’ve read other stories this month about women in health care, you might recognize this name. Dr. Blackwell is the first woman in the US to earn a medical degree after facing years of discrimination that attempted to stop her. She graduated first in her class from Geneva Medical College in New York in 1849.

Here’s what she had to say about the decision to become a doctor:

“My mind is fully made up. I have not the slightest hesitation on the subject; the thorough study of medicine, I am quite resolved to go through with. The horrors and disgusts I have no doubt of vanquishing. I have overcome stronger distastes than any that now remain, and feel fully equal to the contest. As to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally.”

Dr. Blackwell went on to open the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 as well as a medical college in New York City for more women to follow in her footsteps.

“[To] the study of medicine, I am quite resolved…as to the opinion of people, I don’t care one straw personally.”

Rebecca Lee Crumpler, MD

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman in the United States to earn a medical degree, graduating from New England Female Medical College in 1864.

Even as a physician, she was subjected to both racist and sexist ridicule. Many men still believed during this time that a man’s brain was 10 percent larger than a woman’s brain on average, and thus would not approve her prescriptions for patients or listen to her medical opinions.

In spite of this, Dr. Crumpler published A Book of Medical Discourses, worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves, and became the namesake for the Rebecca Lee Society, one of the first medical societies for African-American women. Her home on Joy Street in Boston, Mass. is a stop on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Gertrude Elion, PhD

Gertrude Elion was an American pharmacologist and biochemist. She spent the majority of her career in the study and development of treating diseases and went on to share the 1988 Nobel Prize for her efforts in developing drugs used to treat serious diseases. 

But before this, she had trouble finding a paying research job after graduating school because she was a woman. She worked as a secretary and high school teacher before finding an unpaid position in a chemistry lab. She eventually saved up enough money to attend New York University for her master’s degree.

After retirement, Elion supervised the development of azidothymidine, an AIDS treatment that prevents pregnant women from spreading the disease to their child. She also devised the first antiviral drug to treat viral Herpes infections and invented a key immunosuppressive drug for organ transplants.

Women Leading the Charge Today

The number of women in the field of medicine today is staggering, from medical assistants to physicians to researchers and scientists. All of them contribute to the pursuit of better health care. Here are just a few examples of the women working today that are changing lives and impacting the community at large. 

Jennifer Doudna, PhD

Dr. Doudna is an American biochemist and one of the world’s leading geneticists, helping to develop CRISPR, a genetic-engineering method that can help eradicate serious diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, and HIV.

She has been instrumental in research on ribozyme structure and function, X-ray diffraction-based structure of ribozymes, and CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing. She was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Emmanuelle Charpentier “for the development of a method for genome editing.”

Dr. Doudna is currently the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley.

Dr. Doudna was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method of genome editing.”

Sana Farid, MD

Dr. Farid is a surgeon, ambassador of women empowerment programs in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), and pioneer of AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality) solutions around well-being.

She is co-President of the MENA chapter of the VR/AR Association, an executive member of the UAE Genetic Diseases Association, and co-founder and CEO of Munfarid Consulting, an AR/VR education consultancy. She has been an esteemed speaker and subject matter expert in the fields of tech and medicine and has served on various international committees and panels on the intersection between health care and advancements in technology.

She’s noted, “The UAE believes in the women’s role in society as a leader, decision maker, and a key partner in the development process.”

Hongsoo Kim, PhD

Dr. Kim is a professor at Seoul National University and a health services and policy researcher. She and her team focus on quality, outcomes, and systems of health care with special attention to the elderly and people with chronic conditions.

Dr. Kim has published dozens of peer-reviewed research articles, including topics on policy lessons for aging countries, technology-enhanced integrated care, and diabetes and care management in South Korea, among others.

“We need better gender balance in leadership of health services,” says Dr. Kim. “We need gender equality in leadership.”

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These experts provide just a snapshot of the wide field of medicine, research, and healthcare technology that women occupy today. As Women’s History Month draws to a close, share this article with other curious readers; take a moment to remember the historical obstacles that women have overcome to be on equal footing in medicine, and be a champion for women today in overcoming the obstacles that still exist.

A Thank You to Our Own Teammates

More than half of Everside Health–from our corporate teammates to health center staff to remote workers–are women. In recognition of Women’s History Month, we’d like to thank you for the hard work, diligence, and expertise you provide that makes Everside what it is today. Your contributions support our mission of empowering members in our care to live their healthiest lives. Thank you.