Growing up, Kristen Carroll, M.D., chief of staff at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Salt Lake City, had a female pediatrician. Her mother made the conscious decision to subtly provide a role model in medicine for her daughter. Today, Dr. Carroll is the one leading by example, giving her patients both expertise and empathy. She’s developed a leadership style all her own that’s equal parts skilled surgeon and nurturing friend. She once brought chicken soup to her patient after surgery. She humbly downplayed the comforting action, saying, “Well, it wasn’t homemade – I just opened the can.”
Bringing together different voices and perspectives is a source of strength for our health care system. Shriners Hospitals for Children is proud to have many female orthopaedic surgeons on staff. Of Shriners Hospitals’ 301 orthopaedic surgeons (full and part-time), including hand and spine surgeons, about 25% are women. In contrast, according to a 2017 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, of 10 surgical specialties, orthopaedic surgery has the least representation of women – at 5.3%.
For Dr. Carroll, the most important strength women orthopaedic surgeons provide is empathetic care. “When you look at health care decisions, 80% of the time it’s the mom, aunt, sister or grandmother making the decision,” she said. “We are the caretakers. Being able to talk mom to mom, sister to sister is a very special bond. Women appreciate having a care provider they can relate to.”
Opening the doors
Michelle James, M.D., holds dual leadership roles in Northern California. She is chief of orthopaedic surgery at the Shriners Hospitals location in Sacramento, and she also leads the pediatric orthopaedic service joint program of that hospital and University of California, Davis.
She is a noted pediatric hand surgeon and has served on the board of directors of the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the Perry Initiative and Orthopaedics Overseas. She is also the former president of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society, a support and networking group for women orthopaedic surgeons.
Helping young women realize they can pursue their dream of becoming an orthopaedic surgeon is a cause close to her heart. Dr. James supports the Perry Initiative, an educational outreach program for young women interested in medical careers held annually at approximately 70 medical centers across the U.S. Every year, Shriners Hospitals for Children — Northern California hosts a daylong program for interested high school students. Participants learn to use surgical drills and perform other duties, such as suturing, and have opportunities to observe surgeries.
“Younger women need to see that it’s possible,” said Dr. James. “Seeing a woman [perform orthopaedic surgery] is eloquent and speaks louder than trying to talk someone into the field.” She has had many former patients shadow her, and two have gone into medicine. “A woman can be maternal and nurturing and also be a good surgeon,” she said.
For Dr. Carroll, there is no limit to women pursuing greater challenges in medical careers, although they might need extra encouragement and opportunities. She created a scholarship program. The recipients are typically medical assistants. She also provides guidance by working with interns. “It’s important to have female mentorship,” said Dr. Carroll.
Interns receive guidance in the field, clinic and operating room, making connections with other surgeons and getting exposure to research opportunities. “It was all invaluable,” said Alyssa Hales, a third-year medical student who served as an intern at the Salt Lake City Shriners Hospital and was mentored by Dr. Carroll. “When you don’t have friends and family in the field, having someone to reach out to with ortho questions is so helpful. I don’t know if I would have been able to continue pursuing this field, which is still so male-dominated, without her guidance.” Hales noted, “In the last three years, only two females from the University of Utah matched for orthopaedics, versus 14 males.”
The value of women in leadership
Having women serving as leaders throughout our facilities is important to our unique health care system.
“Everyone brings needed skills to the table; women often bring a particular empathy and ability to listen, sometimes making it easier for mothers to talk about their child’s situation and needs,” said Dr. James.
“We understand we are better served by having women in positions of leadership at all levels,” said Henry Iwinski, M.D., chief of staff, Shriners Hospitals for Children Medical Center — Lexington. “At Shriners Hospitals, we are fortunate we can pick from the cream of the crop in orthopaedics. Somehow women are dissuaded from ortho, even though they are just as competitive and qualified as men.” He added, “There’s intentionality toward our mission. Shriners Hospitals has really stuck to its mission of caring for kids regardless of ability to pay. There may be a selection bias toward choosing Shriners. Women may be drawn to that mission.”
Dr. Carroll agrees. “The reason I came to Shriners, instead of staying in private practice, was that the mission really resonated with me,” she said. “The only objective is improving the lives of children.”
And men and women working together, sharing their insights and talents, strengthens everyone.
“We see the effects of women leaders in politics and business. Study after study has proven this,” said Robert Cho, M.D., chief of staff of Shriners for Children Medical Center — Pasadena in California. “We are better thinking together.