Two diversity champions encourage women, minorities to pursue orthopaedics
Encouraging women and minority medical students to pursue orthopaedics has long been important to Michael J. Patzakis, MD, and Robert J. Neviaser, MD.
Dr. Patzakis, the long-time chair of the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, and Dr. Neviaser, professor and chair of the department of orthopaedic surgery at The George Washington University (GWU) School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., and director of the school’s orthopaedic surgery residency program, have helped those institutions’ residency programs become some of the most diverse programs in the nation.
Making the pitch
Dr. Patzakis, who retired on Sept. 15, 2012, oversaw the USC orthopaedic surgery residency program’s growth during his decades-long tenure at the institution.
Currently, women and/or individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds account for 54 percent of the program’s 50 residents. In addition, 40 percent of residents in the 2012 senior class are women. Dr. Patzakis credits David Thordarson, MD, the program’s current orthopaedic residency program director, with helping build the diverse program.
“It just so happens that USC is able to attract medical students from diverse backgrounds, but the reason we accept them is because they are very qualified,” said Dr. Patzakis.
Raj Rao, MD, professor and director of spine surgery in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin and chair of the AAOS Diversity Advisory Board, completed his orthopaedic residency training at USC in 1995.
According to Dr. Rao, the USC program “has some of the bright-est orthopaedic residents in the country.”
“Dr. Patzakis continued a long tradition of diversity and inclusion in the department of orthopaedic surgery at USC by recruiting residents based on their individual merits and potential,” he added. “The program very much represented the diverse community it served in the greater Los Angeles area.”
According to Dr. Patzakis, a key factor in building such a diverse program is reaching out to women and minorities.
“Whenever I have the opportunity—whether I am talking with medical students who are rotating through orthopaedics or lecturing to a class—I always make a pitch to women and minorities to let them know we have a place for them,” said Dr. Patzakis.
“They need to know the orthopaedic profession wants them to pursue orthopaedics,” he continued. “Why shouldn’t orthopaedics get the brain power? Why should those of us in orthopaedics be happy with 10 percent of female medical students, when women are 50 percent of all medical students?”
Benefits of diversity
According to Dr. Patzakis, having residents with diverse backgrounds improves patient care.
“The United States is a melting pot, especially in the Los Angeles area, where our patients live,” he said. “The residents are very sensitive to patients’ different cultural needs and learn to treat every individual with respect.”
Dr. Patzakis notes that much more progress still needs to be made in creating a more diverse orthopaedic workforce.
“The orthopaedic profession needs to do a better job of getting the message out that we have a wonderful specialty that is attractive to medical students of all backgrounds,” he said. “Women need to know that orthopaedics is conducive to their career goals.”
Dr. Patzakis said that, for many years, women have tended to migrate toward specialties other than orthopaedics.
“Orthopaedics is doing a little bit better, but it won’t be doing well enough until at least 50 percent of resident applicants are women,” he said.
Meeting high standards
The orthopaedic residency program at GWU, headed by Dr. Neviaser, is another program with a long history of attracting female residents. Currently, 40 percent of the program’s residents are female.
“I think the women who have come through here have always found that they’re treated equally to the men,” said Dr. Neviaser, who has served as chair of the institution’s department of orthopaedic surgery for 26 years. “Everybody is expected to meet what we feel are high standards. We tolerate no discrimination whatsoever.”
As a result of this philosophy, said Dr. Neviaser, women apply to the program.
“They see that women are treated equally and are given the same opportunities,” he said. “They feel comfortable here because of our long history of having female residents and faculty members.”
Leesa Galatz, MD, who completed her orthopaedic residency at GWU in 1998, found that Dr. Neviaser had the same high standards for all orthopaedic residents, regardless of whether they were male or female.
“He expected us not only to be good surgeons, but to treat patients well—to be familiar with them at the time of surgery and assume responsibility for their care,” she said. “We had to be prepared for cases, fully prepared in the operating room, and prepared to take care of patients after surgery.”
Dr. Galatz never felt she was treated differently because she was a woman.
“GWU has a culture of diversity and opportunity,” she said. “There were many female residents in other surgical specialties and women on faculty in different surgical specialties. It was a hospital looking for qualified people, regardless of their sex. Not only was the culture accepting of women, but being a woman was just not an issue, which made it a comfortable place to train.”
Reaching a milestone
This year, just four residency slots were available at GWU, and women matched for all of them, a first for the program. Dr. Neviaser looks forward to seeing more and more diversity in orthopaedics.
“There has been a lot of progress, but there’s a long way to go,” he said. “Orthopaedics used to be considered a specialty that women weren’t suited for because it was thought they weren’t strong enough or big enough; however, it’s been proven that’s not true. Now, women are becoming interested in orthopaedics for all the reasons that everyone else becomes interested in it, and they have found a place.”
The best way to get more female medical students interested in a career in orthopaedics, said Dr. Neviaser, is simple.
“You just have to take the first step: You have to accept women,” he said. “You will find they do just as well as the men do. There are some outstanding female orthopaedists. The percentages of outstanding residents compared with poorly performing residents are just about the same for female residents as for male residents. There’s no difference.”
Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org