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My Kind of Medicine: Women in Medicine Panel Discussion

Ruth Parker, MD, FACP; Christine Reimer, MD, FACP; Susan Hingle, MD, FACP; and Karen Hsu Blatman, MD

To commemorate Women’s History Month, this month’s IMpact profile features four of our female physician members who recently came together for a panel discussion. Our panelists were a diverse group, representing different areas of the country and ranging in experience: Dr. Ruth Parker, a general internist and professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta GA; Dr. Susan Hingle, a general internist, internal medicine clerkship director, and associate residency program director at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, IL; Dr. Christie Reimer, a hospitalist and associate program director with the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA; and Dr. Karen Hsu Blatman, a resident at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.

During the discussion, panelists talked about what they love about their jobs, as well as what some of their challenges have been, and shared everything from being a new mom, to showing emotion on the job, to being the only woman at the table. Below are highlights.

To listen to the panel discussion in full length or to access ACP’s additional resources about women in medicine, please visit the Women in Medicine Web site.

Q: The percentage of women entering the medical field has increased significantly, particularly in the last 20 years. In your opinion, is discrimination even an issue anymore for women in the workplace?

Dr. Parker: “I think it’s probably still there to some degree, but there’s definitely been a shift. For one thing the numbers of women who are in medical school and medical school training are up enormously. There’s no question that the critical mass has had an impact. But we definitely don’t see those kinds of numbers in leadership roles at high levels—whether it be in academic medicine as Dean or Chair or in leadership roles of big private practice groups and multi-specialty groups. And I think it’s probably for a combination of reasons. There probably are some barriers that have been related to gender and other issues, but I think for some it might be a matter of lifestyle choices.”

Dr. Reimer: “I agree that there are fewer women in leadership positions than in other places in medicine, and I also think that’s multi-factorial. I think it may include things like lifestyle choices, and the fact that only recently have medical students been nearly 50 percent women and it takes a while for that class of women to rise up through the ranks.”

Dr. Hingle: “I don’t feel that my gender has been detrimental in any way as far as me achieving what my goals are. I think if we want more women in leadership positions, I don’t know that I would say it’s lifestyle choices, I think maybe it’s redefining expectations.”

Dr. Hsu Blatman: “I don’t think it’s an issue of discrimination, I think what it is is ‘time off the clock.’ What’s interesting to me is that my husband has actually gotten a lot more flak from being at Harvard Medical School to now being a part-time dad and working what may be perceived as a less prestigious job. But he feels fulfilled—being able to do the teaching and clinical stuff, and being able to take care of the family, which has allowed me to be full time in residency and do additional things that I’ve wanted to. There is no way I would be able to do this if it weren’t for my husband.”

Q: How do you balance everything?

Dr. Reimer: “I had a conversation yesterday in the hall with one of my colleagues here about this. I think by the nature of the profession we’re in, most of us are used to giving 100 percent of our time to what we want to do and what we’re good at, and that’s medicine. And then particularly when you have a child that changes, because you want to give 100 percent of the hours in your day to your child and your family…and 100 percent to your career and job. And I think that’s a hard lesson learned by a lot of people in our profession, that you just can’t give all of your hours to more than one thing.”

Dr. Parker: “I would be the first to say there are only so many hours in a day, and it took me a long time to realize that. On top of that, a couple can only do so much, a family, parents….you have to figure out what you really are going to do and how you’re going to make it happen. But at the end of the day, what really matters is feeling good about your kids and your family and what you’re doing and realizing you can only do so much. But I didn’t start out knowing that. I grew into it.”

Dr. Hsu Blatman: “I have a great husband. He actually chose to leave an excellent institution and was willing to come down to a place where I found was much more family-friendly. He also went part-time so I can finish out residency. We’ve recently realized just how stressful it’s been for both of us to be full time and to not have any family around, because he’s actually had to go full time for the last couple of months. We’ve realized that it’s just not doable.”

Q: The issue of assertiveness is a tricky one for women. Women are encouraged to be assertive and have to be in certain fields, but yet if you’re too assertive or aggressive, a woman can seem difficult or demanding. What has your experience been with this?

Dr. Hingle: “I think in general that assertiveness is looked favorably upon, and being overly emotional is harder for people to deal with in women. Occasionally when I’ve gotten emotional in discussions, sometimes that’s harder to deal with than when you’re assertive. Have I ever had the experience where being assertive has not been well taken? Yes. Is it because I’m a female? That I’m not sure. Sometimes, I suspect it might be. Other times I may suspect that it’s just the person on the receiving end, that it’s their position and not really anything in what I did. And when that happens, I just try to step back and think of if there’s a different way I could present the point that I’m trying to make.”

Dr. Reimer: “I’m still working on my communication skills and I’m not sure if that’s a function of my gender. But I think as we learn to interact with patients, we learn to interact with peers and other people with whom we work, and we all have communication skills to learn. I admittedly have had to learn to be a little more assertive, as I’ve become more involved in some administrative roles.”

Dr. Parker: “I would add that I think as more women become part of the infrastructure of the care teams, academic teams and everything around patient care, that I do think there is a greater emphasis on getting the voice of everybody at the table heard. I can remember when on so many committees where I was the only woman at the table. Now there are several women on a lot of them.”

Q: Did you have a female mentor who has made a difference for you?

Dr. Reimer: “I was lucky enough to have Donna Sweet who is well known in the ACP circles as one of my faculty as a resident and also when I worked with her as a junior faculty peer. She was probably my first career mentor and she was great. I’ve learned so much from her, from things ranging from patient care and always putting the patient first to communication skills to how to deal with administrative things that I hadn’t dealt with before.”

Dr. Hingle: “I actually have not had a female mentor—I’ve had excellent mentors throughout my career so far who have been very supportive. But to this point, they’ve all been men. And I feel like it probably would have made things a little bit easier, had I had a strong female mentor. But one important thing I did learn from them was learning how to say no, and I think this is something that Dr. Parker was alluding to. You’re going to be most effective when you aren’t overwhelmed and you’re able to fully put forth your effort into the projects you have. And that’s been a difficult thing for me to learn, and I don’t know if it is gender related. That may be an area where having had a strong female mentor might have made an impact.”

Dr. Hsu Blatman: “I have been able to encounter a lot of different people and tailor my experience with them to the specific questions I’m interested in. One thing that’s really helped me is hearing people’s stories and how they’ve gotten to where they are, and thinking about those stories and taking some of those lessons and making them personal.”

Q: What do you love about being an internist? What do you love about being a woman physician?

Dr. Parker: “I have a great job—I love my job. Internal medicine has given me enormous flexibility—I have four kids and a husband who works way too much, and I have a lot of other passions and interests outside of practicing medicine that I’m able to pursue. So it’s been incredible to be able to have that kind of flexibility.”

Dr. Reimer: “I feel like I’ve been very lucky. I have had very supportive division chiefs and department chairs and mentors. I feel like I’ve had a fair chance at everything that I’ve wanted to do or tried to do. I think residents—women and men have so many opportunities open to them.”

Dr. Hingle: “I feel like I’m in a very supportive environment. I don’t think I could ask for a better place to work.”

Q: If you were talking to a younger woman colleague or medical student and she asked you for a piece of take-away advice, what would it be?

Dr. Parker: “Don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy yourself and laugh and have fun. Find the joy. I think that’s the key to it all. It’s all right there for you.”

Dr. Hingle: “Find your passion. And allow yourself to be a full person and not just a doctor.”

Dr. Reimer: “I feel the same way. I try to encourage people to find multiple passions and work to be able to do all of those things that make them happy and make them a whole person.”

Dr. Hsu Blatman: “I remember when I told my husband I was going to be going to medical school him saying, ‘The problem is the way the system is. You take all of these fascinating people who get into medical school and then you make them into very boring people!’ Life is more than just work and you have to find the things that you’re interested in doing as opposed to maybe picking the specialty that’s most prestigious. Go back and think ‘Is this something I’m going to be happy doing for the rest of my life?’”

Back to March 2008 Issue of IMpact

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