Success as a female doctor: What is the recipe?

Major achievements are something that most of us strive for in our lives. We celebrate our successes with our peers, talk about them with our friends, and instill their value in our children.

Whether it is being awarded a prize for professional achievements or stepping back from an active career and spending more time with family, success is both a very personal concept and, at the same time, often very public.

There is no easy recipe to follow. For physicians, the definition of success varies just as widely.

In a recent series of articles, Medical News Today explored the lives and achievements of five historical female role models who left a lasting impression on modern medicine.

From mental healthcare reformer Dorothea Dix to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, these historic figures paved the way for today's female physicians. From Rosalind Franklin's trail-blazing molecular biology career and Virginia Apgar's championing of newborns, to Olga Jonasson's iconic success in surgery, each comes with a unique success story.

Yet each has been described as tenacious, dedicated, curious, and ingenious, perhaps hinting at their recipe for success. Can their stories inspire today's female physicians to empower their own success?

Perhaps the concept of "success" in today's world is more complex and goes beyond being recognized for breaking down barriers or pushing boundaries.

In that case, are role models still relevant? And is finding personal fulfillment at the heart of success for today's physicians? MNT spoke to female physicians at different stages of their careers to find out.

The biggest threats to success

In a recent Viewpoint article in JAMA Internal Medicine, two doctors shared their views on how medicine has changed over the years and what role models meant to them.

Lara Goitein, M.D., is a pulmonologist in New Mexico, and her mother Marcia Angell, M.D., is corresponding member of the Faculty of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, and former editor-in-chief of The New England Medical Journal.

Dr. Goitein told MNT that she felt that female physicians were certain to encounter unique challenges, such as "sexism in the workplace, societal expectations that they shoulder a disproportionate share of household responsibilities despite their careers, and of course, the glass ceiling."

To her, however, the biggest challenge for young physicians isn't gender specific. It is "the burnout engendered by the high-volume, regulatory, financially oriented environment of healthcare today." So can role models help?

"Role models and mentors can be incredibly important in helping young physicians fend off burnout and combat the underlying challenges."

Lara Goitein, M.D.

Dr. Goitein added that mentors help young physicians "by reminding them that the core of medicine is helping people in desperate need and that that remains deeply worthwhile; by encouraging them to hold on to their integrity; and by teaching them to take the lead in directing the course of the profession."

Role models from every walk of life

Whereas Dr. Angell's own mother was a housewife and maintained the opinion that medical school was for men, Dr. Goitein clearly saw her mother as a role model.

In fact, Dr. Goitein told MNT that she has had "innumerable" role models throughout her career, "from every walk of life and stratum of medicine - including my patients."

"I remember the patient who taught me that life is beautiful and short, and never to waste time," Dr. Goitein said. "I remember the senior resident who had me and the other interns conduct morning rounds in Haiku to teach us to focus on the central issue in a patient's course, and who insisted that everyone speak in whispers during a cardiopulmonary resuscitation to demonstrate that it could be done calmly and without chaos."

Has Dr. Goitein's view of what success means to her changed over time?

"My definition of professional success has not changed: it is helping people who are sick," she told MNT. "The ways in which I try to accomplish this have changed over time, but the heart of the matter never changes, and that enduring focus is what I love about the profession of medicine."

Her definition of personal success has, however, changed over time; she now describes it as combining "doing something important for society with taking the time to notice and revel in family, beauty, and the existential pleasures of life."

Early career years

Michelle Dorwart, M.D. - a recently graduated family physician in Vermont - told MNT that she had "crossed paths with a lot of wonderful role models, including many successful female physicians." But there is one particular person who she strives to emulate.

Dr. Stephanie Van Dyke, a former classmate of Dr. Dorwart, was a family physician until her passing earlier this year, at age 40.

Dr. Dorwart described her friend as "without an ounce of hyperbole, the most generous and selfless - and persistent - person I have ever met. While in medical school, she founded Engeye, a clinic in rural Uganda, which now serves more than 13,000 patients per year. Everywhere she went, she brought a sense of passion."

To Dr. Dorwart, the biggest challenge for young physicians is to maintain "the humanitarian drive that led many of us into medicine" in the face of "packed schedule, piles of papers to sift through, and people pulling us in all directions."

She added that "it can be daunting and exhausting to be emotionally present for each person," when time is short and duties are plentiful.

So what is her strategy? "I try to approach each person I encounter with kindness and calm, though I must admit that I am more successful on some days than others," she said.

This attitude is reflected in her personal definition of success, which is "in the constant striving for better, both for myself and for those around me," she told MNT.

These sentiments are echoed by Rebecca MacDonell-Yilmaz, M.D., who is a pediatrician and currently a fellow in hospice and palliative medicine in Rhode Island.

"Personal success is being a supportive, loving wife and mother, working toward becoming the best physician possible, and caring for myself," she said.

Dr. MacDonell-Yilmaz doesn't have one particular role model, which she attributes to the fact that "being a mom, wife, and physician is no longer a rare thing."

She added, "I look up to all of the women who came before me, especially those who pursued medicine when female physicians were still a rarity."

For Dr. MacDonell-Yilmaz, the "biggest obstacle that new physicians face is finding the path that is right for them." Between the pressures of choosing a specialty and the right residency, aspiring physicians "face a lot of judgment along the way."

In her case, the choice was between obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics. She worried how her peers would perceive her if she didn't become a surgeon or choose a residency with "notoriously grueling hours."

"And even after I trusted my heart and chose pediatrics - a choice I have never once regretted - I struggled with which programs to rank at the top of my Match list," she explained. For Dr. McDonell-Yilmaz, finding a residency program with a culture that she was happy to be part of was the key to success.

Beyond role models

Sara Taylor, M.D. - family physician in Alberta, Canada - had a role model during her residency. "[She] was a female physician who seemed to have a work-life balance and emanated a sense of enjoyment in her work as a physician."

Yet Dr. Taylor added, "Today, I would have a hard time narrowing down one role model as I believe I am leading the life as a physician that I want to lead."

"Although I admire many women in medicine, because of my varied interests professionally I don't see one person forging a path that I see for myself," she explained.

Dr. Taylor told MNT that her perception of her professional success was dependent on how successful she felt in her personal life, but that she didn't feel that the reverse was true.

"For me, success is certainly not defined by either income or external rewards - it is when I feel I am living purposefully aligned with my values, believe I am helping others, and feel surrounded by loving relationships."

Sara Taylor, M.D.

Finding one's own path, finding personal fulfillment in one's career and personal life, resisting the stresses of the medical profession, and helping patients, are all at the heart of success for these female physicians.

Re-defining success

Jeffrey E. Brown, M.D. - a family physician in California who writes a regular column for Physician's Money Digest - has seen a cultural shift in medicine.

Gone are the days of the "Lone Ranger [who] would work endless hours on his own and build a small business. Family, community, travel, hobbies be damned," he told MNT.

Our historic female role models are often described as having a single-minded dedication to their careers. We attribute their lasting impression on medicine partly to this.

The concept of single-minded devotion is outdated. Today's physicians are, instead, facing the challenge of being passionate about their careers, family, and personal interests, thus striving for success on many levels.

Role models are personal, come in many guises, and clearly remain hugely inspirational today.

"One of the amazing things about medicine is the number of hands extended to you, and the modeling of how to be intelligent, compassionate, and even heroic, which happens every day."

Lara Goitein, M.D.