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How Women Shaped Healthcare in America

The way our healthcare system operates today was built on the work of women past and present. Many of the first hospitals were founded by Catholic nuns over 150 years ago. They did everything from administration and operations, to clinical work and public health outreach. These women were the first leaders in healthcare and their accomplishments forged a path and place for women in the workplace.

In honor of Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the women who laid the foundation of our healthcare system and continue to drive its growth.

Women Dominate the Healthcare Workforce

Women make up a whopping 78% of the healthcare workforce in America. Nearly half (47%) of medical school graduates were women in 2017 and that number continues to rise. Women now make up over 43% of all doctors and surgeons in America, a number that’s climbed steadily over the past 10 years.

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Women Make the Healthcare Decisions (& We Need More of Them in Leadership Roles)

The female head of the household makes 80-90% of the healthcare decisions. Healthcare leadership is a great fit for women and an industry that needs more women in leadership positions. Only 18% of Hospital CEOs are women and only 4% of healthcare company CEOs are women.

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Why is it important to diversify top management? As leaders, women can help contribute a more balanced view of healthcare. Diversifying top management with a mixture of men and women gives a better representation of the patient population.

Influential Women in Medicine

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, First Female Doctor in America

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Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College in 1849 and co-founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She was never interested in medicine, but decided to pursue it after a dying friend told her that she would have suffered less had her doctor been a woman. Elizabeth Blackwell wrote about this experience in Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women published in 1895.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, First African American Doctor in America

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Dr. Rebecca Crumpler earned her MD in 1864 from what is now known as Boston University. She moved her medical practice to Virginia during the post-Civil War period where she cared for freed slaves who did not have access to medical care. She was one of the first African-Americans to publish a medical book titled Book of Medical Discourses.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, First Female Surgeon

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A graduate of Syracuse Medical College in 1865, Emile Edwards Walker was among the first wave of women in the US to earn a medical degree. She is thought to be the United States’ first female surgeon and was also the first female surgeon in the US Army. Originally from upstate New York, Dr. Walker was an outspoken advocate for women’s health, suffrage, and dress reform.

Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross

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Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 after caring for soldiers during the Civil War. After appearing at a field hospital during the Civil War with loads of supplies, the surgeon on duty wrote, “That night, I thought ‘if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be one’ — her assistance was so timely.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Pioneer on Death, Dying, and Grief

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Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that death be considered a normal passage of life. She described the five phases of dying a person experiences in her book On Death and Dying, published in 1969. Dr. Kübler-Ross confronted taboos and transformed the discourse surrounding death. She helped to ease the difficulty with which patients, families, and healthcare professionals discuss terminal sickness. She also helped influence the improvement of end-of-life care.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Advocate for Human Rights

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Though she wasn’t a doctor, Eleanor Roosevelt had a significant impact on health care in the U.S. and around the world. In 1948, she was appointed as head of the UN Human Rights Commission where she helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt believed that all people deserved access to healthcare as a fundamental right.

Dr. Virginia Apgar, Developed Apgar Score for Newborns

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Dr. Virginia Apgar developed the first system of tests to assess the health of newborn babies, known as the Apgar Score. She was also the first woman to be a full-time professor at Colombia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Rosalyn Yalow, Pioneer of Radioimmunoassay (RIA)

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Rosalyn Yalow was a medical physicist and a Nobel Prize winner in Physiology/Medicine after developing radioimmunoassay (RIA), which is a technique used to measure the concentration of antigens such as hormones, in the body. This technique made it possible to scan blood donations for infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. If you’ve ever had a blood transfusion, this is the woman to thank for the safety and quality of the blood donation.

Join us in celebrating women of the past, present, and future this International Women’s Day.

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