'The path has been forged': 2 female orthopedic surgeons reflect on progress, barriers in the field

Carly Behm -  

Jane Tan, MD, and Yvonne Satterwhite, MD, of Atlanta-based Resurgens Orthopaedics, have defied expectations of what an orthopedic surgeon looks like since they began their careers.

While more women have entered the medical profession, orthopedics remains one of the specialities with the lowest female representation.

On national Women Physicians Day, Dr. Tan and Dr. Satterwhite discussed the progress they've seen for women in orthopedics, the hurdles that remain and what future surgeons should know.

Note: Responses were edited for style.

Question: Tell me how you chose the orthopedic specialty and the biggest challenge you had to overcome in your early career.

Dr. Jane Tan: I love orthopedics for several reasons. I believe that quality of life is as important as quantity of life. I feel privileged to be able to perform surgeries that restore function to the human body, and I enjoy working with my hands. The work is also very intellectually stimulating. I love the teamwork involved in taking care of patients.

The biggest challenge in my early career, which still persists today, is the misconception of what an orthopedic surgeon should look like. I receive frequent comments regarding my size, gender and race. What’s most fascinating is that the people who express the most doubt upon first glance about my ability to perform my job are the people who know the least about the job itself. Those insiders who know what is required to be an orthopedic surgeon have never expressed any doubt.

Dr. Yvonne Satterwhite: I have always been involved in sports as a participant and spectator. My first career interest, in middle school, was archeology. I shadowed my high school team physician, renowned orthopedic surgeon James Andrews, MD, and those experiences clicked on a career switch that could never be clicked off: the male-dominated field of orthopedics. I was advised by many to become a nurse or a physical therapist instead, as those are also wonderful fields for providing medical care, and would be more appropriate for my gender and size and those times in medicine. Dr. Andrews encouraged me to pursue my dreams, to aspire to be the strongest and the smartest, and he never displayed any doubts about my potential success. My biggest challenge, when I started my practice 30 years ago, was convincing my new patients when I first walked into the room that I really was the orthopedic surgeon and not holding the door open for a tall, husky gentleman to come in behind me.

Q: How have you seen women’s representation and equity grow in orthopedics over your time in practice?

JT: During residency, I was the only female resident among the six in my class, and on average there were about three or four female residents in the entire 30-person program at any given year. Women represented 9 percent of orthopedic surgeons at that time. Over the years, there has been a gradual increase in the number of women accepted into orthopedic residencies and taking leadership roles at the academic level.

Organizations such as the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society, Perry Outreach Program, Nth Dimensions, and Orthopaedics in Action — part of the Perry Initiative — have developed programs to expose women to and encourage them to consider careers in orthopedic surgery.

YS: Women as a presence in orthopedics is slowly but surely evolving on the clinical side, academic side and the leadership side. Women who are focused, sincere in their love for the field and for patient care, and who blaze trails without that being their primary goal are leading the way. These are fabulous women like Jo Ann Hannafin, MD, the first female president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine; Kristy Weber, MD, first female president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; Kay Kirkpatrick, MD, former co-president of Resurgens Orthopedics; Mary Lloyd Ireland, MD, the first female team physician for a Division I University; Ruth Jackson, MD, the first female practicing orthopedist in the United States, and the members of the FORUM women’s orthopedic society, of which I was blessed to be one of the founders. Lastly, who could imagine that 40 years after first shadowing Dr. Andrews, I would become the first female president of his fellowship society? We could.

Q: What is the biggest barrier that still exists for women in orthopedics today?

JT: The biggest barrier is the perception that this is a man's job. These misconceptions start early and often dissuade female medical students from even applying (essentially, the battle is lost before it is begun). This is why it is important to encourage medical students, and even high school students who have a love of biology, sports, and/or mechanics, to think about this career as a real, tangible opportunity.

YS: The stereotypes still exist. More men and women mentors are needed to provide women encouragement, reinforcement and endorsement and less of the "Are you sure you want to be an orthopedic surgeon and not something else?"

Q: What are one or two things you wish your male colleagues knew about the experience of being a female orthopedic surgeon?

JT: Two gender-related things that my male colleagues do not experience include receiving gender bias from patients and other healthcare providers and balancing a busy career with the heavier workload expected from the female of the household.

YS: Orthopedics is too hard a job to pursue just to prove a point. If a woman is interested in orthopedics as a career, acknowledge her passion as sincere and judge her by her efforts, enthusiasm, diligence, ethics and team approach just as you would a male colleague. Understand that many of us are aware that we may still be quietly viewed — and sometimes not quietly — as less likely to be potentially successful coming out of the starting blocks than "the guys," so don’t move our starting blocks back even farther.

Q: What advice do you have for women orthopedists just entering the field?

JT: Believe in yourself. Orthopedics is a field that requires intelligence, dedication, finesse, compassion and a strong will. None of those things are specific to any gender.

YS: The path has been forged; it is easier to find. Now just make it broader with your inherent nurturing nature, intelligence, laserlike focus and will to succeed. If we prioritize quality patient care and outcomes and are a team player, respect and gratification should follow.

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