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My Summer in Orthopedic Surgery

Editor’s note: The author’s identity has been withheld by the Editorial Board due to the sensitive nature of the article.

Administrative assistant, nurse and high school volunteer were just a few of the titles people assumed I was when they saw me sitting in the office of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. Often to their surprise, I was a medical student starting my summer research project between my first and second year. It became immediately clear that seeing a young woman associated with orthopedic surgery was not something many people were used to.

It was not until this summer that I started to get hit with many of the realities of what it means to enter this field. Orthopedic surgery is currently the medical specialty with the lowest percentage of women. Only four percent of board certified orthopedic surgeons are female. In the hospital where I was conducting research, there was only one female resident and two female attendings in the entire department.

Unfortunately, several stereotypes that are often strongly associated with orthopedic surgery became very apparent to me, especially the jock and fraternity brother culture. The crassness seemed to be something that came with the territory, and there was no shortage of penis jokes or “that’s what she said” moments. Every now and then, the residents or attendings would suddenly remember that I was sitting in the room or scrubbed in for a procedure and say something to the effect of, “Oh crap, there’s a girl in here. Let us know if we’re offending you,” or “Please don’t report us.” Getting hit on by various hospital staff or having attendings wink at me were not rare occurrences. I was also told numerous times to start improving my bench press and to make sure my drinking habits could keep up with the boys.

After this summer, I can see how the stereotypes of orthopedic surgery can often deter women from entering the specialty. Another reason for few women entering orthopedic surgery is the false pretense that this specialty requires a considerable amount of upper body strength. After scrubbing in on over 20 orthopedic cases this summer, I did not observe any procedure that I would not be able to do because I might have less upper body strength than my male colleagues. Maybe it took me a few more hammer strikes to get the nail in place, or I had to use both hands to tighten the screw, but the differences were minimal. Female orthopedic surgeons can also take advantage of biomechanical concepts to make physically demanding procedures, such as reduction of a dislocated hip, feasible even without impressive upper body strength. For example, the Captain Morgan technique utilizes the surgeon’s leg strength and the weight of the patient’s leg in order to achieve reduction. In addition, more efficient biomedical devices, such as oscillating bone saws and arthroscopic instruments, are making strength much less of a prerequisite for being a successful orthopedic surgeon.

One question that people have asked me is: Why does it matter that there are few women in orthopedic surgery? If women do not want to enter orthopedic surgery, then why should the effort be made to recruit more women? According to the AAMC, women made up 48 percent of medical students graduating in 2014, yet only represented 4.6 percent of practicing orthopedic surgeons. If orthopedic surgery wants to continue to attract the top applicants, it is reasonable to say that about half of the top applicants will be women. In addition, numerous benefits have been cited with respect to learning in a co-ed environment. Mark C. Gebhardt, MD, chief of orthopedic surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, argues that “women bring a different perspective to the specialty” because “exposure to individuals who have different life experiences, are a different gender, or are from different cultures changes a student’s prior assumptions. White male students learn to interact better with female and minority patients, which increases the quality of care and the satisfaction of both patient and physician.”

Organizations such as The Perry Initiative and the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society are taking important steps to increase the number of women entering the field. I was fortunate enough to attend one of The Perry Initiative’s medical student outreach events and the experience only further encouraged me to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery. Several female orthopedic surgeons spoke about their career paths and afterwards I participated in a hands on workshop where we used bone saws and power drills to fix femur fractures on fake bones. Exposing more female medical students to the specialty and providing opportunities to meet potential mentors could play a role in drawing more talented women to orthopedic surgery.

My summer spent doing orthopedic surgery research gave me the opportunity to see firsthand what it was like to be a part of such a male-dominated specialty. However, I was also fortunate enough to meet several female orthopedic surgeons who told me about their experiences in the field and encouraged me to pursue this career path. Scrubbing in on so many exciting procedures and witnessing the fulfillment from helping many different patients has reinforced my interest in entering this specialty. Hopefully in the near future I will play a small role in changing the idea of what type of person becomes an orthopedic surgeon.

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