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Physician, Thy Name Is Woman : A Group of Orange County Female Doctors Has Formed Athena Medical in the Belief Many Will Seek Them Out


The 31-year-old woman, we'll call her Terry, said she goes to woman doctors exclusively. Wouldn't think of going to a man.

Why? "You want it blunt? Men don't have cramps. I say, 'This is killing me. Gimme a prescription,' and he says, 'Aw, it's not that bad.' They don't know.

"I've had male doctors in the past, but I think it's the empathy. You just feel you can relate to a woman doctor better."

A group of women doctors in Orange County is betting there are lots of women like Terry out here. They've banded together to create what may be the first woman's old-boy network in American medicine.

Calling themselves Athena Medical but still practicing in their independent offices, they promise to refer patients among themselves and help shoulder at least the initial costs of advertising. They say they want men as well as women for patients. But when it comes to member doctors, "we'd like only females," said one network member. "That will make us exclusive. It will give us an edge, we think."

"If they're not the first, they're sure on the cutting edge," says Bob Bohlmann, director of consulting for the nonprofit Medical Group Management Assn. "It's a good idea. I think they've got something."

All-woman practices are not new. For years, groups of female doctors have practiced obstetrics and gynecology in partnership, and many such practices are flourishing. The Doctor's Office for Women in Newport Beach has six woman physicians and sees around 100 patients a day.

But Athena Medical is aimed at patients who want woman doctors regardless of the field. The network offers family practice and pediatrics as well as some specialties, such as ophthalmology, dermatology and podiatry.

Advertising will be aimed at both men and women, but doctors expect most patients will be women, at least in the near future.

"It's a general thing: The male doesn't need a doctor until he's around 40 or 50, if he's healthy," says Grace Imbastari, a Santa Ana internist and network member. "But the woman needs a doctor after the age of 20 (when regular testing for uterine cancer begins).

"The husband usually accompanies her, and if they like the physician, he becomes a patient, too. But women usually make the choice of physician. Then they sort of drag their husbands in for attention."

Imbastari says about 20% of her patients are male, but others in the network report up to 30%.

So far, 16 medical doctors, an osteopath, a podiatrist, a dietitian and a social worker have joined the network. Their offices extend from Newport Beach to Placentia. One of the physicians has 25 years in private practice, two others have 11 and 10 years. The rest average somewhat more than three years.

All are on the staff of Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, which means many of their patients will wind up admitted to that hospital. In hopes of that, Western Med has offered to do some of the network's administrative chores and to pay for part of the network's direct-mail advertising.

The mail campaign begins next week. "We're targeting approximately 50,000 people, a mix of both male and female population in the different ZIP codes around our members' offices," says Melissa Christian, Western Med's director of medical staff development.

While women 18 to 55 will receive the advertising postcards, "for men we're targeting only 34 to 55," Christian says. "We're sensitive to the fact that some very young males may not be comfortable with women physicians."

The postcards stress that the network is "unique" but only refer to "a network of women physicians" in small print beside the network logo.

The emphasis is on describing the doctors as "committed to giving you the kind of personal health care that has almost disappeared from modern medicine." A second mailing will urge people to call for the network's directory, in which the all-woman membership will be obvious.

The oblique approach was "extremely intentional," Christian says. Concern about provoking a male backlash within the profession was significant enough to prevent at least one woman surgeon from joining. "The O.R. (operating room) is the last bastion of male chauvinism in medicine," Christian says.

"Clearly, the angle for the network is it's all women, but we took the text very gently. The doctors are concerned about reaction from their peers, and we were also concerned about Medicare laws about discrimination. Oddly, these laws were passed in the '60s to prevent discrimination against females.

"I went through counsel on this, and we've intentionally kept it informal. That's why there are no bylaws or contracts. Everyone keeps her own office. There's no profit for the network itself. We'll treat males and females. I don't see any way anyone can charge discrimination."

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