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Format: 04/23/2014
Format: 04/23/2014


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: More women strive to be surgeons

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

By Chris Ramirez


Susan Jordan had few female classmates while studying to become a surgeon. Female mentors were a rarity, even just seven years ago when she began her residency.

These days, she's not as lonely.

More women appear to be aiming for careers in surgery, long considered the last bastion of male-only medicine. Women make up only 19 percent of the nation's 160,000 surgeons, but that's up from 7 percent in 1970, according to the American College of Surgeons.

Women compose less than a quarter of the surgical staff at each of Pittsburgh's largest medical systems, but officials expect that to change because more are applying to enter residencies to become surgeons.

"We're not at equity right now, but we're getting much, much closer to it," said Mary M. Kemeny, chair of the American College of Surgeons' Women in Surgery Committee.

Only 15 of the 311 surgeons at West Penn Allegheny Health System, or about 5 percent, are women.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the region's largest health system with 50,000 employees, was unable to provide systemwide statistics. But officials said 72 women are among the 355 surgeons who work in five of UPMC's busiest surgical departments — orthopedics, neurosurgery, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and heart, lung and esophageal.

It's clear each hospital system is making women surgeons a priority for the future. They have held conferences promoting surgery as a career and stepped up outreach programs, targeting female students as young as 17 and 18.

"Women make up half the world's population," said Dr. Freddie Fu, chair of UPMC's Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and founder of the Center for Sports Medicine. "It only makes sense they should be more involved in all we do in medicine, too."

Years of study, the lack of female role models and the long-held perception of surgery as a male discipline often discourage women from becoming surgeons, some experts say.

Jordan, 35, an orthopedic surgeon, works in UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine and serves as director of its sports medicine rotation to teach students. She specializes in shoulder and knee surgery and is an assistant physician for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Jordan operated on Denny Falsetto's right shoulder at the UPMC South Side outpatient center after he injured his rotator cuff in October while picking up an electric snake, a 100-pound piece of plumbing equipment, at the hardware shop where he works.

"You could hear it pop," said Falsetto, 64, of Brownsville.

Jordan operated on his left shoulder two years ago. During the latest procedure, Jordan probed Falsetto's shoulder using orthoscopic instruments and cameras, some no wider than an ink pen.

Digital images of Falsetto's cartilage, bone and even arthritis residue were displayed on overhead monitors to help Jordan repair the damaged tendons. He will wear a sling for four to six weeks, and undergo about six months of physical therapy.

"She's patched me up before," Falsetto said. "As long as she keeps taking me, I'm comfortable with her."

Becoming a surgeon is a journey. After earning an undergraduate degree, a student must be accepted into one of the nation's 146 medical schools. Medical school often lasts four years.

Students then enter a surgical residency training program at a hospital, which can take four to eight years to complete. The final step is passing a board certification examination.

Kristin Gross, 25, is nearing that stage.

The Chicago native is in her fourth year at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school and applied for residency in general surgery. Eventually, she'd like to work in oncology.

Gross said classrooms had an equal number of men and women in her third year of medical school.

She made up her mind years ago to enter surgery; her father is a surgeon, and her mother is a nurse. Still, she said she is comforted to see other women in the operating room. She counts as her mentor Dr. Giselle G. Hamad, a surgeon at Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland.

"It's one thing to have a father talk about (surgery) all the time, but to see another woman who has a family and has been through it ... is very helpful," Gross said. "I was confident I'd get into surgery even before I picked her as a mentor ... but observing her in the workplace solidified my decision."

Need grows

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics last year projected employment of physicians and surgeons to grow 14 percent from 2006 to 2016. Continued expansion of health care-related industries and the widening demand from the nation's aging population are expected to fuel the trend.

Nationally, women represented almost half of the 42,200 applicants to U.S. medical schools, according to the American College of Surgeons.

Last year, 5,400 people applied to enroll in Pitt's medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Of them, 2,600, or 47 percent, were women. And of the 147 people the institution accepted, 65 were women, statistics show.

Twenty of West Penn's 95 surgical residents are women. West Penn has 13 female general surgical residents in training.

Kemeny, the Women in Surgery Committee chair, said it could take two or three decades before operating rooms are staffed with equal numbers of men and women.

Dr. James E. "Jack" Wilberger, who chairs the department of neurosurgery at Allegheny General Hospital and is vice president for graduate medical education for West Penn Allegheny Health System, said hospital officials are considering creating more flexible work schedules to attract women surgeons. Surgeons can work up to 80 hours a week. West Penn officials are weighing "split residency," in which two students share residency time, a strategy that has gained momentum elsewhere.

"We're going to need more ... surgeons no matter how the health care reform debate plays out," Wilberger said. "More and more of our applicants are women. We need to take advantage of that in surgery."

To read more, visit the Tribune-Review web site.

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