Chiropractor education: women DCs need support systems, mentorship and more

By Chiropractic Economics

Approximately 25% of practicing DCs are women, but women make up roughly 50% of students in chiropractor education institutions

Unlike many health care professions in western medicine, women have been actively involved in the chiropractic industry since its beginning. Although male-dominant, by the end of the 1920s women represented nearly 15% of licensees in Minnesota (what has always been regarded as a health care hub), compared to about 5% in the U.S. And like other STEM fields, the chiropractic care industry is passionate about encouraging and inspiring women to pursue a chiropractor education and continues to share the multitude of benefits with the broader health care ecosystem.

This includes ensuring chiropractor education programs are equally as achievable and effective for women as they are for men, despite physical differences. This empowers women to pursue their desired educational and career paths and equips other health care practitioners with the knowledge of how chiropractic can aid in women’s health issues. As with all medical industries, there will always be opportunities for progress, and educational institutions are committed to increasing female engagement in the industry.

Chiropractor education: balancing the gender gap
At Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) nearly half of the students are female. This represents an impressive shift to more balanced gender demographics in its chiropractic college. From 1984-2019, its female enrollment rates increased by 81%. That growth includes a 21% increase in female enrollment in the last five years and 38% in the last 10 years.

While the female enrollment uptick in colleges like NWHSU is encouraging, gender disparities still exist in the profession. Industry-wide, men still make up the majority of chiropractic practitioners — some estimates state that 75-80% of practicing chiropractors today are male. As female students pursue an education in chiropractic, universities and certification programs are being more intentional about teaching them how to use their bodies differently. They are exposed to techniques that don’t necessarily require significant physical manipulation, such as the Activator technique, Flexion-distraction and the Thompson Drop-Table Technique.

Inspiring through peer coaching, mentorship
“The League of Chiropractic Women” at NWHSU is a dedicated forum designed to bring female chiropractic students and practitioners together to discuss challenges women may encounter as providers. Additionally, the institution leads the “Be Bold Women’s Group,” a supportive environment for women on the campus to learn how to become fully visible in their lives by building confidence, embracing vulnerability, expressing authenticity, and leading brave, intentional lives. This type of peer coaching, support and networking is critical.

Similarly, all practitioners, male and female, can encourage students of chiropractic by being academic and professional mentors. These relationships often extend years after students complete their chiropractor education.

Recognizing barriers
Complementary and integrative care institutions also must recognize the barriers women face. They are generally the health care decision-makers in their family groups and take on many pressures outside of pursuing education. The result can be the inability to afford their schooling or fund a pathway to starting their own practice and achieve self-sufficiency.

Colleges and training programs generally understand that students often need additional support to complete graduation requirements. Tackling an education can put a strain on finances for individuals and families. Many women who care for aging parents or raise children are struggling to find the resources to advance their schooling on top of their existing responsibilities.

NWHSU recently received a large grant from the WCA Foundation, a nonprofit supporting programs for women and children in the state of Minnesota. Scholarships are awarded for low-income and minority students with a special preference for female students.

Similar efforts for minorities are needed to ensure equal representation in chiropractic. Currently, the profession is overwhelmingly Caucasian (92%). However, minorities predominantly seek out practitioners (especially in chiropractic) of a similar background. This is largely due to comfort, historical distrust and experienced biases. One study found that the prevalence of chiropractic use was 8.8% for Caucasians, 2.7% for African Americans, and 3.8% for Latinos. Based on what we know, the prevalence of African Americans and Latinos seeking chiropractic care could be increased with more providers of similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Serving female patients
One of the most powerful inspirations for females pursuing an education, and eventually a career in chiropractic, is largely due to their own personal experience with chiropractic care as a means to improve quality of life or lessen one’s dependency on pain medications. According to a recent study, women represent a majority (60%) of chiropractic patients.

The college hosts residencies with medical students at the University of Minnesota to ensure part of their training highlights the unique benefits chiropractic brings to women’s care. Medical students are often most interested in how to help women manage pain or care plans associated with:

Migraines — Approximately 15% of the U.S. population experiences migraines, with women afflicted three times as often as men. While medications are often used as first-line treatments, up to 50% of people with migraines pursue complementary and integrative medicine. One promising non-pharmacological approach for migraines is chiropractic care, due to the co-occurrence of migraine disease and neuro-musculoskeletal tension and pain.

Low-Back Pain in Pregnancy — Low-back pain during pregnancy is a common occurrence and is mainly caused by hormonal and biomechanical changes. Patients with pregnancy-induced low-back pain (PILBP) frequently complain of moderate to severe and disabling discomfort, often restricting their daily activities. According to multiple studies, chiropractic can be effective in treating this condition. One study showed that patients who saw a chiropractor as their initial provider for low-back pain had 90% decreased odds of both early and long-term opioid use.

Fertility — Manual therapy, including spinal manipulation and whole-body mobilization of structures affecting reproductive function, has successfully been used with women diagnosed as infertile as a result of mechanical causes.

The path forward
We must encourage the chiropractic industry to empower women and advocate for whole-person health through chiropractic care. Both as patients and practitioners, women are critical to the chiropractic industry. To best serve patients and promote equity within the profession, we must continue to support and make it possible for women to pursue a chiropractor education and feel successful in doing so.

Universities, health care organizations and private practices must make deliberate efforts to mentor, recruit and inspire the next generation of women and minorities. As young women across the country consider higher education opportunities, we want them to find promise and an impactful future in chiropractic. With good mentors and support systems in place to help ensure their success, the future for our profession is bright.

Tolu Oyelowa, DC, PhD, is a professor and department chair at Northwestern Health Sciences University.