Some patients wait until Dr. Jerome Chelliah snaps on his gloves to make the request. Others blurt it out as soon as he walks in the exam room.
“I’d rather see a female doctor,” they say.
Chelliah thinks he can be a sensitive obstetrician-gynecologist even though he’s a man. But he has no choice but to comply.
“I’ve been rejected many times over,” he said. “As a person of color, I face discrimination in other ways, but it’s not so blatant.… People have no problem saying they don’t want you.”
Chelliah is in a field of medicine where all the patients are female, and it’s more possible than ever for them to demand female doctors.
In 1970, 7% of gynecologists were women. Now 59% are.
Some men fear the falling number of male OB-GYNs could eventually lead to them being excluded from the specialty. They believe this is not only unfair, but also has subtle ramifications that go beyond patients’ comfort on the examination table.
It's a perspective that garners little sympathy among women who had to fight for entrance into the male-dominated world of medicine.
“Nobody was worried at all that there weren’t enough women in OB” in the 1970s, said Dr. Barbara Levy, an OB-GYN who trained then. “Nobody paid any attention to us.”
The debate about male OB-GYNs taking place in universities and doctors’ offices across the country has stoked concern and resentment among men and women, creating the ultimate collision of medicine and gender politics.
Chelliah, 28, became an OB-GYN because he wanted to get to know his patients, not just their medical problems.
OB-GYNs often treat the same women for decades, helping them pick a birth control method and cope with menopause. They care for mothers through pregnancy and share in the joy of new families.
“We have a front-row seat to life that no one else has,” said Chelliah, who is completing OB-GYN residency training at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, Calif.
Yet the job can feel cruel. Chelliah recently noticed a sign on a patient room with a picture of a baby’s foot. Above it, “Female providers only.” He kept walking.
Patients can legally discriminate by sex, race or any other factor when choosing a physician, and some women feel more comfortable talking about intimate health topics with women.
Brooke Hamel, 19, recently went to get an intrauterine device inserted by a doctor recommended by her sister. She quickly started crying.
“He touched me and I immediately lost it,” said Hamel, who lives in Yorktown, Va. “As soon as I had to spread my legs, I was in a really vulnerable place, and I did not want to be in that position with a male.”
Male medical students say OB-GYN patients at universities often ask that they not be in the exam room. While female students are awed by helping deliver their first baby, men can miss out.
“It sends a horrible message to men who might have a nascent interest in OB-GYN that’s promptly quashed,” said Dr. Carl Smith, head of the OB-GYN department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Men are now less likely than ever to try to become OB-GYNs. Only about 17% of current OB-GYN residents are men. Smith and others say that if their numbers keep dropping, it could weaken the field overall.
Dr. Reshma Jagsi, who studies gender issues in medicine at the University of Michigan, said a group of people with varied perspectives can better solve complex questions and make advances in a field. Men and women can offer important contributions to OB-GYN, she said.
“I really do believe that diversity improves the quality of care,” said Jagsi, who said gender isn’t a factor when it comes to picking her own OB-GYN.
Dr. Saketh Guntupalli, a gynecological oncologist at the University of Colorado, raised the stakes. “If you exclude 50% of people from anything, think about how much you’ve lost,” he said. “You might lose the next person who's going find a cure for cancer.”
These concerns appear to have given men pursuing OB-GYN an advantage. Medical school advisors told some that they wouldn’t need to apply to as many residency programs as women with equivalent test scores, male students said.
If deciding between an equally qualified male and female candidate for a residency class that otherwise would have only women, program directors may favor the man, said Dr. Todd Jenkins, an OB-GYN at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“We find our faculty, our residents work better when we have a little mix,” he said.