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Panel Discussion Celebrates Women in Medicine

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Virginia Apgar, MD, introduced the first standardized method for evaluating a newborn's transition to life outside the womb.

In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the U.S. to receive her MD. Today, about half of medical students, and 36% of all physicians, are women.

While acknowledging those advances, particularly over the last half-century, participants in a panel discussion at Cedars-Sinai's "Celebrating Women in Medicine" program on Oct. 2 offered mixed assessments of the current status of female physicians.

Nancy L. Sicotte, MD, who this year was named chair of the Department of Neurology, offered perhaps the most upbeat view. "Medicine is now open to everyone who has the willingness and the grit to get through the training and wants to be in this profession. And I think that makes us all stronger," she said.

But Sarah J. Kilpatrick, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and moderator of the discussion, emphasized, "We still have a lot to do." Kilpatrick, while noting that women are now about 50% of U.S. medical students, said "we're nowhere near that in terms of fulltime working women and in terms of academics," where female department chairs remain a distinct minority.

Kilpatrick, who became Cedar-Sinai's first female chair when she was named to her current position in 2010, and Sicotte were joined on the panel by Joanna Chikwe, chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery at the Smidt Heart Institute, and Selma Calmes, MD, a retired clinical professor of anesthesiology at UCLA and a past chair of anesthesiology at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center, who has written about the history of her field.

Chikwe, speaking before the standing-room-only audience of faculty, fellows, residents and students at Harvey Morse Auditorium, noted that evidence shows that "what hampers women and minorities, or people that come from a different culture or other organizations, it's that you tend to not be given the benefit of the doubt when your boss has incomplete or inaccurate information because you don't have a relationship—you don't have a network." She said that also leads to "less access to opportunities, both within your organization and outside of it."

Her advice was to be "extremely intentional" in building relationships with potential mentors. She said that should be done not through making "superficial connections" at networking events but by "trying to build it around interests in common, projects in common."

Calmes gave a talk before the panel discussion highlighting the challenges that women doctors have faced over the years by telling the story of Virginia Apgar. A pioneering female anesthesiologist, Apgar in the early 1950s introduced what is known as the Apgar score for evaluating a newborn's general condition moments after delivery.

Calmes explained that Apgar found herself in the subfield of obstetric anesthesia only after being prevented, because of her gender, both from becoming a surgeon and, later, from being appointed chair of Columbia University's anesthesia department. Her success in medicine "just goes to show that even when there's an obstacle, there's always something better that will come and that you'll find, and I hope that's true for all of you. It's certainly been true for me in my career as a physician."