For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen my feed the last few days filled with thoughts and comments from the AAMC Mid-Career Women’s Professional Development Course (#MidWIMS- storify from the meeting coming next week!). The opening talk on Saturday was given by Julie Lien Wei, Professor of Otolaryngology and Division Chief at UCF. One of her statements during her discussion of her career trajectory resonated deeply with me.
“I thought that becoming a surgeon was synonymous with being a (((jerk))). One woman surgeon changed that.”
I’ll confess that I entered medical school with the image of surgeons as being less kind, less humanistic, and definitely less well-rounded than other physicians. I was also very determined when I started medical school that I wouldn’t be a surgeon when I finished. Fortunately during my 3rd year I came under the influence of a pediatric surgeon who epitomized a happy, enthusiastic, kind surgeon. As a result of his influence and that of a couple others here I am, almost 20 years to the day from my acceptance letter to Texas A&M College of Medicine, happily ensconced in my career as a surgeon. More importantly, I want to believe that I didn’t sell my soul to get here, and that I am every bit as kind, humanistic, and perhaps more well-rounded than my colleagues in other fields.
Even with the 20 years that have elapsed since my own decision-making, as surgeons we still have an image problem. When I tweeted Dr. Wei’s statement, I had a student respond, “They are jerks. The woman was an exception.” Ouch.
So this is all the further we’ve come? As recently as 2010, one study showed that medical students enter with a negative perception of surgeons (good to know I wasn’t alone in that!). The perception that physician/ patient relationships are lower quality is a negative influence on selection of a career in surgery. And we know that personality fit plays a role in specialty selection, meaning that if students consistently see behaviors that they perceive as incongruent with their values, they’ll vote with their feet. However, the surgical clerkship appears to offer an opportunity for mitigation of these negative impressions. Nevertheless, the perceptions appear to return to baseline within a year of the clerkship.
Clearly we aren’t yet where we should be. We’re definitely not where I want us to be, and I’m basing that on information I see from my own students about how some of my colleagues and our residents behave at times. Caveat: I’m not saying I’m perfect every day because I’m not…but I try hard to be a good example, and if I sense I’m not being one I’ll own it. I’m also generous with apologies if I’ve dropped the behavior ball.
Here’s my request for you, fair reader.
-If you are a medical student, what is your perception of surgeons? How can we improve it?
-If you are not a surgeon but work with us, what do you see that we could change?
-If you are a surgeon, what do you see behaviorally in our specialty? I know that bad behavior is significantly influenced by environmental tolerance (blog post for another day), but what else do you observe?
The bottom line, what I really want to resolve, is how do we fix our image so we’re not scaring off folks who would be incredibly talented?