Behind the Mask: Female Surgeons of SLUCare

06/05/2017

Pictured: SLUCare vascular surgeon Dr. Catherine WittgenPictured: SLUCare vascular surgeon Dr. Catherine Wittgen


SLUCare Leads the Way with More than 30 Women Taking Charge in the OR

While it might be common to read about women physicians being underrepresented in the field of surgery, at SLUCare Physician Group, that is not the case. The subject has received a good deal of attention following a recent cover story in The New Yorker picturing a circle of women surgeons in the operating room. Doctors around the world have been recreating the photo on social media to raise awareness about the contributions of female surgeons.

Town & Style June 2017 Cover: Female Surgeons of SLUCareAccording to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 271 of the nation's 4,484 cardiothoracic surgeons are female. But SLUCare has two of them, notes Dr. Melanie Edwards, cardiothoracic surgeon at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. "That's kind of amazing," she notes. "As more women go into surgical subspecialties, hiring barriers are being broken. I think SLUCare is at the forefront of that." Today, there are 10 female surgeons in its department of surgery, compared with only two a decade ago. And there are 23 more in the departments of ear/nose/throat, orthopedics, OB/GYN, ophthalmology and dermatology. So it's clear that progress is being made.

I think women have a natural ability to bond with patients and provide reassurance. We're also very collaborative and able to communicate well. It's to our advantage, and the patient's, that we are natural consensus builders.”

Edwards says SLUCare's team-focused environment is a main reason she finds it a great place to grow professionally. She sees a variety of surgical patients, including those with lung and esophageal cancers and other thoracic diseases, and is able to treat them with highly advanced approaches, including minimally invasive and robotic procedures. "I've read recent reports suggesting that patient outcomes are often better in medical practices with women physicians," she notes. "That's not to say men aren't just as good, but I think women have a natural ability to bond with patients and provide reassurance. We're also very collaborative and able to communicate well. It's to our advantage, and the patient's, that we are natural consensus builders."

Edwards says many people feel anxious about surgery, so calming their fears is key. She notes that women physicians have a talent for understanding the needs of the ‘whole patient,' both physical and psychological. "In medicine, we've learned that no one is an island," she explains. "If you listen well to fellow team members, that collaboration can bring up ideas others might not have considered." Dr. Catherine Wittgen, a SLUCare vascular surgeon and the first woman at Harvard Medical School to be fellowship trained in that specialty, says personal touch is so important that she begins every operation at the patient's bedside, holding his or her hand to provide comfort. She performs a range of vascular procedures, including aortic aneurysm repair, carotid artery surgery and stent placement.

Wittgen and Edwards agree that SLUCare offers a supportive work culture that emphasizes a surgeon's skill and merit, not gender. "They hire doctors who are most qualified and the best fit, and I think that's becoming more common around the country," Wittgen says. "Ten or 20 years ago, you wouldn't necessarily see that in a lot of physician groups." She finds her male colleagues to be supportive of female surgeons, and they work as a team to heal each patient. "All of us bring our best to the table," she says. "It's a great way to operate." 

Wittgen notes that she and her female colleagues also provide an important example for future generations of women surgeons. "If a young girl reads about us and says, ‘I can do that,' even if she didn't think it was possible before, that's a really good thing," she says. 

SLUCare Physician Group provides a team approach to patient care and treatment. For more information, call 314-977-4440.

This article originally appeared in Town & Style.

By: Julia M. Johnson