OUTSIDE THE OFFICE
Robin West, MD, is the only female physician serving as head team physician for both a professional football team and a professional baseball team, making her a pioneer in sports medicine.
Furthermore, the fellowship-trained, board-certified orthopaedic and sports medicine surgeon is founding chair of Inova Sports Medicine in Fairfax, Va.
Dr. West currently serves as head team physician for the Washington Nationals and head team physician for the Washington Redskins.
She previously served as head team physician for Carnegie Mellon University’s sports teams; head team physician for the University of Pittsburgh wrestling, gymnastics, swimming/diving, and men’s basketball teams; and assistant team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The following interview explores some of the experiences that have shaped Dr. West’s leadership development and contributed to her success.
Dr. Nolan: Can you discuss your career path?
Dr. West: I have been interested in orthopaedics since I was 5 years old. After discovering Gray’s Anatomy on my uncle’s desk (he was an anesthesiologist), I received my own copy for Christmas, and my passion for human anatomy began. During college, I swam for the Johns Hopkins team, but a bout of mononucleosis during my freshman season kept me from swimming for eight weeks, which led me to become a student athletic trainer. In that role, I observed surgeries and worked directly with the athletes.
I stayed in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., area for medical school at George Washington University. Although I loved all specialties, I always returned to orthopaedics. I enjoyed the way physics, math, and my love of working with my hands seemed to fit perfectly together.
Following residency at George Washington University, I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my sports medicine fellowship, and Freddie H. Fu, MD, chair of orthopaedic surgery, asked me to stay. I was at the University of Pittsburgh for 12 years before moving to the Inova Health System in 2014 as chair of their new sports medicine program.
Dr. Nolan: What is it like to build a sports medicine program?
Dr. West: It was interesting coming from the very rigorous academic and well-developed sports program at the University of Pittsburgh. I first built a team, and together we identified the necessary components to a comprehensive sports medicine program. It has been challenging, stressful, and rewarding. Shortly after coming to Inova, I began working as the head team physician for the Washington Redskins and the Washington Nationals. It’s like having three jobs in one, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It keeps my mind sharp and my body strong. You have to stay mentally and physically fit to provide great care to these athletes.
Dr. Nolan: Patients may not always realize how many members of the team are involved in their care. How is your team organized?
Dr. West: The broad-based team here at Inova consists of clinical athletic trainers, orthopaedic surgeons, primary-care physicians, physical therapists, vestibular therapists, sports psychologists, and more. We have also built a phenomenal concussion program, which includes neuropsychologists.
My contribution is small, and it takes a team to provide great care to our patients. I take what the athletes have on the professional level and bring it to the rest of our patients to give them “top-notch” care.
Recovering from an injury is not just physical; returning to play also includes psychological and nutritional aspects. We have partnered with EXOS, which is a nationally recognized human-performance company, to help us cover all aspects of recovery, nutrition, mindset, and movement.
Courtesy of Robin West, MD
Dr. Nolan: Did you always know you wanted to be a leader in orthopaedics?
Dr. West: I don’t think so. I have always enjoyed being challenged, and I wanted to make a difference, which is what brought me to this position.
Dr. Nolan: What drives you?
Dr. West: The desire to stay on top of my game is what drives me. I have always been motivated to make things better: How do we make the return to play quicker and more successful? How do we decrease the chance of re-injury?
Dr. Nolan: What skills have led to your success?
Dr. West: Success requires a strong work ethic, high integrity, honesty, humility, and professionalism. I feel those are the most important aspects of advancing your career.
Dr. Nolan: Do you think some of your early, nonmedical leadership positions in high school and college contributed to your skills?
Dr. West: Yes, because each position was a stepping stone. When I was on student council in high school, I learned how to work with others and address conflict.
During my 11-year tenure as assistant team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I had the opportunity to work with James P. Bradley, MD, the team’s head orthopaedic surgeon.
Being able to experience wins and losses, watch players respond to injury at every level of play, attend three Super Bowls, and assess an injury during one of them have made my current team physician role much easier.
Dr. Nolan: Did you have mentors who helped you along your career path?
Dr. West: My mom was my first mentor. She was a single mom who taught me the value of solid ethics, humility, professionalism, and perseverance. If you can overcome a failure or setback, you will only grow stronger, she said.
My mentor during medical school and residency was my chairman, Robert Neviaser, MD. He taught us that orthopaedics was understanding anatomy and biomechanics. He had very high expectations of us. If we had a 7 a.m. meeting, the doors would close at 6:50 a.m.—you had to be in your chair 10 minutes early. Now I see students stroll in 20 minutes late with coffee in their hands.
Drs. Fu and Bradley were my mentors during fellowship. Dr. Fu taught me how to build a team. In residency training, you must manage the floor, conduct surgery, and consult with patients in clinic. You don’t really understand how the team truly works.
He also taught me the importance of communicating with the entire medical team, including the physical therapists, athletic trainers, other team physicians, and coaches, because we are all on a team to make the athlete better.
Dr. Bradley taught me how to be a team physician at the professional level and how to manage the players, coaches, and agents.
Dr. Nolan: Why is being able to manage and communicate with agents important?
Dr. West: Many professional athletes’ parents are not involved in their decision making, so they respect their agents and rely on them to make decisions. After I review with athletes my plan to help keep them healthy, I then ask, “Who do you want me to call?” Some say call my mom, sister, or agent. It’s ultimately the player’s decision, but the agent plays a big role. Athletes view their agent as the one who looks out for their best interests.
As long as the communication is open and we understand each other, we can build trust. These are kids with a bad injury who are away from home, under a lot of pressure, and making a lot of money. Being there to help them with decisions makes a huge difference.
Dr. Nolan: Would you describe yourself as an optimist or pessimist?
Dr. West: I am an optimist—I forget bad things. When something negative happens, I move on quickly, and I don’t hold grudges. I think that’s important; otherwise you will never be able to advance in this position. We are all perfectionists, but results may not always be perfect. Patients respond well to optimism.
Dr. Nolan: What similarities do you see between female and male orthopaedic leaders?
Dr. West: Fortitude and perseverance.
Dr. Nolan: How do you deal with conflict?
Dr. West: I used to avoid it, but as a chairman, I have learned to find a solution and move forward. Communication is the best way. Approach the conflict and find a resolution. Don’t hold grudges. Don’t let conflict drag you down; there is too much going on. If the patients are taken care of, we’re good.
Dr. Nolan: What gives you meaning in life and in your work?
Dr. West: I have a great, supportive family. I have two thriving daughters, and my kids and husband give my life meaning. I couldn’t do any of this without them. I want to be a great role model for my children, but I also want to be their mom and provide support. I think it’s important to show them a strong work ethic and high integrity. If they understand and live by those necessary core values, they will be successful.
Dr. Nolan: Do you have any future career plans?
Dr. West: My business plan at Inova is moving a lot faster than I expected, but I assume I will still be building a program in the next five to 10 years. Things change along the way. I was in a bad road-biking accident a little over a year ago that has required three major surgeries and changed my perspective. You never know what life will bring you.
Betsy Nolan, MD, is president and chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Shoulder Center. She serves as president of the Orthopaedic Society of Oklahoma, is a clinical assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Oklahoma, and holds editorial board positions for multiple journals and leadership roles within the orthopaedic community.