Medicine is being transformed from a chauvinistic profession led by powerful male consultants into a female-dominated workforce.
The white male who has ruled medicine for centuries is disappearing and the doctors of the future will be predominantly female, a report says.
Since the 1980s, the proportion of male consultants has fallen from 90 per cent to 72 per cent and is on a steep downward trend. Among the youngest consultants aged 30 to 34, just 53 per cent are men.
In medical school, female students already outnumber male students and by 2013 more than half of GPs will be women. By 2017, a majority of all doctors will be women.
The gender balance is changing so fast that the future care of patients is threatened, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) says.
Women are more likely to work part time, to break their careers to have families, and to choose people-friendly specialties such as general practice and paediatrics.
More doctors will be needed to maintain existing levels of service and competition for less female-friendly disciplines such as surgery and anaesthetics will be reduced.
The implications of the growth of women in medicine "should be urgently examined so that the effective delivery and continuity of patient care is not compromised", the report says.
Jane Dacre, professor of medical education at University College, London, who chaired the RCP working group, said TV medical soaps that have featured male central characters, from Dr Finlay in the 1960s drama Dr Finlay's Casebook to George Clooney's character Doug Ross in ER, would have to change.
"TV programmes need to catch up with reality. Everyone has experience of their family doctor and from 2013 your GP is more likely to be a woman."
The working group was established after Professor Carol Black, a former college president and only the second woman to hold the position in its 500-year history, said in an interview with The Independent in 2004 that the profession was in danger of losing its power and influence because too many women were scaling its ranks.
Women doctors were equal to or better than their male colleagues in ability but family commitments made it more difficult for them to rise to the top of the profession. They chose the less glamorous specialties – dermatology and geriatrics – rather than surgery and were less willing to work the long hours necessary.
With the growing numbers of women in medicine, there was an impending crisis of leadership in the profession which threatened its future influence, she said.
Her warning reverberated round the corridors of Whitehall and two years ago the RCP set up the working group to examine the role of women in medicine. The resulting report reiterates Professor Black's comments. Women doctors are much more likely to work part time than men – 21 per cent do so in hospital medicine and 49 per cent in general practice. Overall, allowing for career breaks and part-time working, women provide on average 60 per cent of a full-time equivalent compared to 80 per cent for men.
"More doctors will be required to provide the same amount of cover," the RCP report says.
Few women hold leadership roles – in NHS trusts as medical directors; as chairs of a professional executive committee; or as heads of Royal Colleges, the report says. And in 2007, only 12 per cent of clinical professors were women. Of 34 medical schools, only two had female deans.
There are variations in the proportion of women in different specialties. Surgery which is highly technical and has unpredictable hours is the least attractive – one-quarter of its consultants-in-training are female. While obstetrics is the most popular specialty – 79 per cent of consultants-in-training are female.
Proportion of consultants aged 30-34 who are women – a number on the rise.