Navy Women Head to the Sick Bay Much More Than the Men

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Female sailors visited the sick bay aboard one of the U.S. Navy's ships nearly 10 times more than their male counterparts, a "startling difference" the Navy had not expected to see, according to a new study. "With a female-to-male visit ratio of more than 9 to 1, the conversion of a ship with an all-male crew to 10 percent female would essentially double the clinical workload of the ship's medical department," says the article in the latest issue of Military Medicine, a respected professional journal for U.S. military physicians.

The Navy dismissed the findings as an aberration. An earlier study involving four U.S. Navy ships found that women visited the sick bay 60 percent more often than men. That was a "significantly higher" rate for women, the earlier report said, but well below the order-of-magnitude difference detailed in the latest research.

The new study, conducted by Dr. G. Michael Summer, involved the USS Frank Cable, a repair vessel based in Guam. Summer, who was the medical officer aboard the ship from 1996 to 1998. His research found that over a six-month period during his service aboard the Cable, "female crew members accounted for 72 percent of the total visits [to the ship's sick bay] while constituting only 22 percent of the crew."

Even when Summer eliminated medical procedures specific to women from his calculations, females visited the ship's doctor six times more often than their male counterparts. "At this rate," he said, "the workload of a ship's medical department will increase substantially when integrating women into an all-male crew."

He concluded his report by calling for more study as to why women may be using medical facilities aboard ships at a higher rate than their male colleagues, even for gender-neutral problems. "Although some questions remain, one fact is clear: The addition of female crew members will significantly increase the workload of a ship's medical department, probably to a greater degree than expected," he said.

Such reports are extremely sensitive in the Navy, which gained a reputation for unfairness to women following the Tailhook convention of Navy aviators in 1991 where dozens of women were sexually assaulted by drunken pilots. Since then, the Navy has pushed hard to put women aboard nearly all of its vessels except for submarines. Last year, the first female skipper took a U.S. Navy warship on a real-world mission to the Persian Gulf. But suggestions that precious Navy funds are going toward more frequent doctors' visits by female sailors will raise anew questions about the wisdom of putting women aboard ships, some Navy officers fear.

Summer, who has since left the Navy, acknowledges such concerns. "I am not ashamed to say that I was a little worried about possible political fallout if the article had been published while I was still in the service, but the long line of articles awaiting their turn let that potential problem pass," Summer told TIME. "Additionally, I felt the issue was an important one whatever the political flak I might take. Ensuring at least adequate medical support for our sailors, male or female, is the overriding issue."