When Susan Joy, MD, co-director of the Kaiser Permanente Sports Medicine Center, joined Kaiser Permanente 5 years ago, the team of physicians was comprised primarily of men, something common in the field of sports medicine. But Kaiser Permanente has been working hard to change this.
“Kaiser Permanente’s sports medicine field is becoming very diverse, and that’s something I’m proud of,” Dr. Joy said. “The number of women in sports medicine continues to grow, helping to break down barriers and stereotypes.”
Today, Kaiser Permanente Northern California has a female sports medicine physician in a majority of its service areas, with more than 20 female physicians across Northern California, making up about 25% of its clinicians and orthopedic surgeons.
Representation and mentorship matter
For decades, sports research has been focused almost entirely on male athletes and teams. The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research has conducted multiple studies on women in sports, including on sleep and high sport activity and the correlation of sport activity and bone density, and continues to concentrate on women’s health and physical activity.
Studies show that female athletes face different medical conditions and are more susceptible to certain injuries compared to their male counterparts. Differences in hormonal profiles, muscle activation, and movement patterns require different care.
“Understanding the differences between male and female athletes is key to delivering the highest quality of care to our female athletes,” explained Dr. Joy. “As women athletes continue to break barriers, our entire team aims to support the growing medical needs of this population.”
Leena Patel, DO, associate program director for Kaiser Permanente San Jose Family Medicine Residency and team physician for the Santa Cruz Warriors, said many of her female patients have expressed how important it is to have the option of a female physician.
“There are topics they don’t feel comfortable discussing with a male doctor, and a lot of their athletic journey has been only with male coaches, trainers, and physicians,” she said.
Alexandra Tee, MD, who completed her family medicine residency at Kaiser Permanente San Jose and was Dr. Patel’s mentee, said representation matters to patients.
“It’s important to have a physician who looks like you, understands you, and who you are comfortable with,” said Dr. Tee, adding that this includes women of color.
Recruiting the next generation
Growing up playing sports, Dr. Tee witnessed many of her teammates struggle with eating disorders and body image issues, something that disproportionally plagues young female athletes. She plans to specialize in female mental health in sports medicine.
Dr. Patel said she is grateful to support other women interested in the field, and emphasized how critical it is for young women to have female role models in the athletic world.
“If I had a female presence when I was young, whether as an athlete or mentor, I would have become interested in sports medicine much earlier.”
Outside of the doctor’s office, many of the female sports medicine physicians at Kaiser Permanente Northern California help mentor and encourage young women to join the field that still disproportionately employs men.
Recently, Dr. Patel participated in a community forum in honor of Women’s History Month aimed at educating middle and high school girls in Santa Cruz, California, on sports medicine. The virtual forum discussed the variety of opportunities in the field, the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and why it’s important that women join the industry.
“I want to let young girls know about the great opportunities, and normalize the fact that more women are entering the field every day,” Dr. Patel said. “If I can do it, you can do it, too.”