By Dr. Tom Varghese
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
I have been incredibly blessed in my life. My parents have been, and continue to be amazing role models. One of my Mom’s favorite sayings was, “Always seek and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. They will stretch your viewpoints of the world.” My dad on the other hand had colorful proverbs and parables to emphasize learning points (I continue to joke with him about writing a book entitled, ‘My Father the Philosopher’). One of his favorites, loosely translated from our local Indian language of Malayalam, was “Beware of continuing to climb up the same coconut tree behind a baboon. Your view will always remain the same.”
Diversity is a buzzword these days. There are numerous examples of the power of diversity in multiple fields of work. Heck, the United States is a testament to the power of immigrant diversity (or at least it has been till date). The conversations traditionally have centered on ethnicity and only recently, gender. This of course is important. But, can we have true diversity when we only pay attention to how we look? What about diversity in thought? This has been difficult to do in healthcare.
In the field of Medicine, it starts with the admission process. High Board Scores – Check. Volunteering to work in clinics – Check. Recommendation letters from those in the field – Check. Straight A’s, Honor Rolls, and Dean’s Lists – Check, Check, Check. Admission committees, overwhelmed with an ever increasing volume of applicants, have to make difficult cut-offs for admission. With the knowledge that certain types of students have succeeded in the past, this knowledge flavors the admission criteria of today. And we as students embrace this mission and mantra. Study hard, deep dive into our books, relentlessly try and figure out the the various signs and symptoms of disease. Along the way we are influenced by various specialties, which ultimately lead to our final paths of training and establishment as Attendings. But where’s the time to diversify our thoughts?
In Medicine, the world around us was historically encountered one patient at a time, one workplace environment at a time, one organization at a time. Experience was solely a personal journey. And this worked in a world that succeeded (and made lots of money) by homogenization, decreasing variation, and converting aspects of healthcare into assembly lines. Departments in Academia prided themselves on success in the form of traditional metrics – papers published, grants received, Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research (BRIMR) rankings and clinical reputation as publicized in traditional media reports. Past success influenced the current metrics, all of which are important, but should they be the only ones?
Social Media has turned the learning experience on its head. There is no longer a need for your views and experiences to be confined to the walls of your institution. You can connect with anyone in the world at any time. However, there is a downside. Though you can find differing opinions, it is so easy to confine your experiences and thoughts to like-minded individuals or groups. Finding your tribes of course is reassuring and empowering. But the same traps of ‘homogenization of thought’ can occur on social media due to evolving algorithms aimed at user-targeted ads and personalized experience. If your timelines are filled with those who echo your same thoughts, who don’t offer differing opinions, are you truly diversifying?
My journey to AWS came predominantly from social media. I was able to connect with many thought leaders who shared their wisdom with the world at large. They opened my eyes to the struggles they had in their work environments. Many of these struggles transcend boundaries – whether they be gender, ethnicity, or social backgrounds. Several took the step of forming groups, and transforming existing organizations to more pragmatic and powerful instruments of change. I was able to learn at a distance of the efforts of AWS, including their work on gender pay inequity, work-life balance, and how to empower others. I was thus inspired to learn more about their work up close. I had live-tweeted their conference last year, and hence thought, why not?
I turned to one of my close friends, who I first met on social media – Dr. Amalia Cochran (@AmaliaCochranMD ). Amalia and I had first connected when we were at different institutions. Our first in-person meeting was when I had the opportunity to give Grand Rounds in Salt Lake City. One thing led to another, and now I’m on faculty at the same institution. I brought up how I had admired AWS from afar, and admitted that I only had a superficial knowledge about several issues such as inequity. Amalia, in classic Amalia fashion, had a mischievous grin on her face while she asked, “So why don’t you become a member?” My response – “I can be a member of AWS?” Hers – “Why not?”
Image of #HeForShe support at the AATS annual meeting 2017
My only prior experience with issues on inequity had been with the #HeForShe movement. The speech that Emma Watson gave is inspiring. This past year, the department of surgery at the University of Michigan embraced #HeForShe and challenged others to follow. Quickly, other organizations such as SAGES, ASE and APDS followed suit. In Thoracic Surgery, our national AATS meeting was about to take place in May, and hence I turned to the Women in Thoracic Surgery organization to ask about interest. With overwhelming support and the help of then president Dr. Jessica Donington and the leadership team, we were able to pledge our support for the movement by our specialty. Awareness is of course the first step. But what happens next?
I joined AWS. Their creed – Engage, Empower, Excel – is something that all of us can benefit from. Engaging with those who have lived and overcome barriers is uplifting. Learning the skills to empower those around you to reach for greater heights is inspiring. And relentlessly applying the skills you learn to excel in your environments can change the world. We’re assembling a #HeForShe task force within AWS, with the goals of teaching the skills for men to effectively mentor and sponsor women surgeons. I personally am still learning, and in my heart believe that many men want to help. They just need to be taught how to do so effectively.
I want to close with some quotes from those I admire:
“Reminder to us all in healthcare. We do not do this alone. Ever. I love having a team of superheroes to work with.” – Dr. Amalia Cochran @AmaliaCochranMD
“Even those above you have knowledge deficits.” – Dr. Julie Silver @JulieSilverMD
“If you want to know the secret of success, it is not being better than everyone else. It is showing up more than everyone else.”
– Dr. Sasha Shillcutt @SashaShillcutt
Embrace diversity at all levels. Connect with those who come from different backgrounds. Constantly seek to diversify your thought. And of course, join us in the work ahead.
Dr. Thomas Varghese Jr. is the Head of the Section of General Thoracic Surgery, Co-Director of Thoracic Oncology, and Program Director of the Cardiothoracic Surgery Residency at the University of Utah. Dr. Varghese holds leadership positions in the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, Thoracic Surgery Directors Association, American College of Surgeons and the Surgical Outcomes Club. Views expressed in this post are personal, and do not represent official positions of these organizations. You can follow on Twitter @tomvarghesejr.
Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.