Another year has come and gone and there’s still need for Equal Pay Day. In the near 20 years since the day was established, there’s not been enough progress on this issue to make the observance obsolete. As a practicing physician, you might think that pay isn’t an issue for me. Unfortunately, the wage gap that plagues most every sector in the country also reaches deep into the field of medicine. And it’s pretty significant.
Despite grueling work hours, years of training and rigorous examinations, women physicians earn significantly less than their male counterparts. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal revealed that white male doctors earned around $90,000 more, on average, than white female doctors.
Coming out of residency, women in most specialties earn nearly $17,000 less than men, with adjustments for hours worked and practice type. The study also found that in the highly educated, demanding and male-oriented medical field, other disparities are dramatic. While this was the first major study to look at racial and gender pay differences across more than 60,000 doctors, I hope it's not the last.
That’s because, for female African-American practitioners, like myself, the gap between these salaries and ours is even deeper and wider. One of the contributing factors to African-American doctors earning less than white doctors is that specialists tend to make more money than primary care doctors. There is still a significant amount of discrimination in the field, which makes finding and maintaining employment for black doctors more difficult. I have witnessed first-hand discrimination — which raises ethical questions and can also lead to difficult working environments among colleagues.
We also face issues with social interactions and patient confidence. There are patients who have questioned my abilities because of my skin color and prefer to confirm my medical advice with someone else (sometimes even nurses) based on these prejudices. To say the least, this can take a toll on one’s confidence. There is also a shortage of African-American mentors in medicine, which leads to a sense of isolation and can make it a lonely experience.
So, for Equal Pay Day, I want to issue a few challenges.
To African-American doctors: Become a mentor. It’s a great way to give back to the community and offer guidance to your peers, especially when it comes to topics such as discrimination and being a shrewd negotiator. Educating others by offering what you’ve learned from your own personal experience can truly make a difference.
To those in charge of educating the country’s doctors, provide more tools for African-Americans to succeed in the working world. For instance, offer classes or seminars that teach salary and negotiating tips for students to help prepare them for the real world. Providers, especially women, should ask for their worth, negotiate whenever possible and have a lawyer that is familiar with medicine to look over their contacts.
It is encouraging that the provision of care is such a hot button issue with our legislators and president — it is certainly one that evokes a strong opinion from most everyone. So lastly, my challenge to them is that standards should be set for the minimum salary and benefit requirements for each medical specialty and job type, and there should be a salary increase for primary care providers to help remedy the shortage.
This sect of providers is important when you think about providing care in communities with the biggest disparities and biggest barriers to access.
Also, they should take an important look at some of the issues plaguing the delivery of care — from removing disparities, reviewing student lending and Pell Grant practices and supporting Affirmative Action policies — that will even the playing field for those on the front lines for caring for the sickest among us.
Dr. Lisa Ashe serves as the medical director of Be Well Medical Group, a leading concierge medicine and wellness group currently serving the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia metro areas.
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