There are more than 20,000 practicing orthopedic surgeons in the United States. Orthopaedic surgery has been cited as being one of the least diverse specialties. Despite over 50% of medical students being female, only 15% of orthopaedic surgery residents are female, and less than 6% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons are female. Discussions and actions needed to address this issue can be challenging. Duke Orthopaedic spine surgeon Dr. Melissa Erickson is doing her part to help.
For the past several years, Dr. Erickson has facilitated hosting the Perry Initiative’s Outreach Program at Duke. This provides a hands-on introduction to the field of Orthopaedic Surgery for women in medical school and engineering for women in high school. The program was named in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, who was among the first woman certified by the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery and was a pioneer in the field of gait analysis and post-polio rehabilitation. The Perry Initiative was founded in 2009 by Dr. Jenni Buckley (a mechanical engineer) and Dr. Lisa Lattanza (an orthopaedic surgeon) to get women excited about two predominantly male fields. Today, the Perry Initiative runs over 50 one-day outreach programs nationwide, reaching over 13,000 high school, college, and medical students through over 450 outreach events.
High school attendance has always been high, but medical student attendance had been challenging over the past few years with the number of students interested in orthopaedics attending having less than 10. “I decided to partner with other regional surgeons in the Triangle. I asked Dr. Holly Pilson at Atrium Wake Forest Baptist to co-chair the event with me. We connected with the outstanding student leaders of the local chapters of the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS), the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA), the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), and the Duke Orthopaedics Under-Represented Minorites (DRM) programs to help spread the word.”
Those partnerships paid off with 60+ medical students from Duke, UNC, Wake Med, Brody School of Medicine at ECU, Campbell University, and the Medical College of Georgia signing up. The recent Saturday session was the largest medical school student turnout to date. The day was spent discussing a range of topics including pathways to becoming an orthopaedic surgeon, career-life balance, fellowships, leadership, and more. Students also participated in a hands-on sawbones lab, practicing intramedullary nailing and external fixation techniques. The event closed out with a panel discussion in which students asked poignant questions.
Duke MS-2, Antoinette Charles said, “For me, the event was a chance to explore the field of orthopedic surgery further and see it through the lens of women. The morning solidified my interest in orthopedic surgery because it was one of the few times that I felt like my plans to balance a marriage, family, and surgical career would be feasible. It was inspiring to hear about surgeons that attend soccer games or theatre performances while also thriving as a surgeon. It was fun to complete a mock external fixation procedure with the guidance of residents and attendings. During Dr. Erickson's presentation on ortho subspecialties in ortho, I was encouraged to see the female residents trained in the Duke Orthopedic program become attendings in various sub-specialties across the country.”
Dana Rowe, Duke MS-1, hasn’t decided on her specialty yet but orthopaedics is at the top of her list. “Mobility and movement are so important to a person’s quality of life and happiness, and I love the idea of being able to restore this functionality for patients. All the speakers were so passionate about their work and confident in themselves–meeting these surgeons and hearing about their career paths confirmed for me the happiness and fulfillment that I may find through a career in orthopedics.” The connection among the speakers impressed Dana. “All of the speakers had a unique background and niche within orthopedics, and it was great to see the breadth of the specialty manifested in all these accomplished women. I was so grateful for how candid the speakers were. They provided actionable, honest pieces of advice for both choosing a career path and selecting a residency program; they brought up things that I had never previously considered and it was awesome to see the rapport between all the panelists. You could tell everyone, from intern to attending, was comfortable and confident sitting on that panel.”
Many orthopaedic faculty, residents, and staff volunteered their time at the event. Dr. Erickson was grateful for their participation. “It meant a lot to have some of our male faculty and residents come out. It was a wonderful demonstration of a simple way to be an ally. I am so appreciative of everyone that took time from their weekend to help.” One of those volunteers, Duke Orthopaedics Department Chair, Ben Alman, made an impression on Lindsey Johnson, Campbell MS-III. “For me, it meant a lot to see the support that the department chair gave to the event. The term “He for She” is a should out to men who support women. I think Dr. Alman’s talk introducing the practice of orthopaedics and diverse career possibilities went a long way in showing a “He for She” attitude of support.”
Dr. Erickson’s Twitter bio reads “Decent human being, wife, mom, soccer retiree, Duke spine surgeon, educator, advocate, collaborator” and she has developed a large following with her real-life posts about her career and what it took to get here–the good, bad, and the ugly. Many of her posts feature #ILookLikeASurgeon and #WorkLifeBalance. She reflects, “I don’t want to lie and say it was easy becoming a spine surgeon. It wasn’t. I worked hard and made sacrifices to get here. It has been an amazing career for me. I realize today that there are many young women discouraged from orthopaedic surgery because of work-life balance challenges or a lack of visible mentors that students can relate to.”
Dr. Erickson is proud of how the day turned out. “This event was wildly successful. We brought together mentors from different practice settings who took different paths to become orthopaedic surgeons and who had personal lives ranging from single to married with small children to empty nesting. We got students from six different medical schools to network with the mentors and other students. We closed the day out with raw and honest questions from the students asking anything from how to choose a residency to how to deal with difficult situations related to intersectionality. The organic conversations had one on one and with the panelists were nothing short of outstanding,” she said.