attending physician

10 Lessons From My First Year As a Female Attending Physician

Below is a list of some important topics that continually come up in conversations I have with fellow female attending physicians and friends. While these conversations are limited to the medical field, I think many of these issues we discuss affect women in all industries.

(This post is a compilation of contributions from several female physicians friends, all speaking from their own experiences. You guys know who you are. Thank you all for your help and support! )

Lesson 1. Change is Slow

I figured I would have to deal with this, but not to the extent I have.

Part of the issue is that people don’t like change and don’t like having their workflows disrupted; another is that if the workplace culture is not supportive of new ideas, then change is even more challenging. People have to be open-minded and willing to try new things, and when they aren’t, it’s that much more of an uphill battle.

Tackling this issue: Shift your focus. Get to know people first. Say hi. Be present. Show them you’re paying attention. As an anesthesiologist, I am part of a stereotype where surgeons assume that we hide behind drapes and play Sudoku all day long. While this is not entirely untrue, we do also work. We pay attention to our patients and know when to take action.

I take it a step further.

I wander around the OR (assuming my patient is stable, of course). I peek over the drape. I (wait for it)….make eye contact with the surgeons! I TALK to them (have you fainted yet?). I ask them how it’s going. I say, what’s up. It’s a small thing, but the result? They ask about the patient. They ask questions….about ME (yes, this has happened!!). And voila. I have a new onset cordial working relationship with my colleagues. Then, when an issue arises, I am not “anesthesia with no name.” I am, “oh hey Dr. so and so, what’s your concern?”

And thus, a change occurs, which opens the conversational doors for anything and everything you can imagine.

me scrub hat
Every so often, I take Sudoku breaks ­čÖé

Lesson 2. Patience is a Virtue

It’s always better to think before you say something; wait before sending an angry response to an email that you’ll regret later.

Tackling this issue: You automatically have the upper hand when you can stay calm and speak calmly, regardless of how anyone else is speaking to you. The moment you lose your cool, especially as a female attending physician, you lose credibility, and people stop listening to what you’re saying. Nothing says “crazy and irrational” like someone who angers easily.

Lesson 3. Generational Differences Exist

Leading those that are older than you can be very challenging. You must be patient and learn to communicate on another level.

Example: The first thing I do when I’m running the OR board and need to tell a senior attending what to do: is smile. Then, tell them my plan and ask them if they’d be OK with my decision. I’m quite friendly with many senior attendings I work with now and am comfortable being a little bossy with them, but when I first started, I always made sure to ask. It sets a different tone for the dynamic and, I think, can serve to soften the weirdness of having a younger person telling you what to do.

Lesson 4. Female Resentment is Real

Many women don’t like being told what to do by another woman, let alone by one younger than them. In addition, we will not get the same undue respect as our male counterparts. We are held to a different standard, come under greater scrutiny, and are questioned way more often than our male colleagues.

Tackling this issue: see my other posts on female physicians and imposter syndrome. I touch on this in those posts.

Lesson 5. You Must Develop Coping Mechanisms

Medicine is a frustrating beast of a profession. There are lots of players, lots of moving parts, and lots of things out of a doctor’s and administrator’s control. You must find a way to cope; otherwise, you will go insane.

Tackling this issue: Find some work friends you trust and vent, join a gym, take vacations to give yourself breaks, or see a therapist. Whatever it is, do it and do it regularly.

Me? I do all of the above.

Lesson 6. Don’t Take Anything Personally

This goes hand in hand with coping. Often, the reason for someone else’s anger/frustration/non-compliance has absolutely nothing to do with you. It’s natural for us to get offended when things are said to us that we don’t like or understand. This leads to self-doubt, wondering whether we are good enough, and feeling like we don’t belong (hello imposter syndrome!)

I promise you, it’s not personal.

Tackling this issue: As an attending physician, you will often fall prey to this. Train yourself to remember that it’s not personal. I repeat this fact to myself constantly.

Lesson 7. Pick Your Battles

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t drive yourself crazy if something doesn’t go exactly how you see it. You choose what you are passionate about or get worked up for. Choose the things that will matter in the long run. Not every fight is worth fighting.

Example:  There are a thousand ways to administer anesthesia. When people do things in a way that I don’t necessarily like, I have to evaluate if what they are doing is actually unsafe or if I’m just being my Type A, picky self. If I’m being picky, then I leave it alone. I only put my foot down if the patient is sick or I think my colleague is truly being unsafe–because at the end of the day, safety trumps all.

Lesson 8. People Will Comment on Your Age/Appearance

As female physicians, this happens much more often. You will also be mistaken for a nurse or other staff worker.

Tackling this issue: Learn to ignore it, or develop a way to respond to it that effectively addresses their comment and helps you move the conversation along.

For instance, when a patient asks how old I am, I cheerfully reply, “I’m definitely old enough to be your doctor!” I usually get a laugh or a chuckle in response, and then move the conversation back to where it was.

Lesson 9. You Will Not Be Good at Everything

You’ve worked hard to land where you are, but a big lesson you’ll learn when you start out as an attending physician is that you are actually not good at everything. I’ve learned more about my strengths and weaknesses within my profession since becoming an attending physician than I ever knew when in school or training. Attending life can change how you view things, including yourself, and alter your career plans altogether.

Tackling this issue: Don’t try to be good at everything. Some people are, but if you aren’t, it’s OK. Recognize your strengths and continue to refine and build them up. When you find yourself in a situation where you know you are weak, ask for help or a second opinion.

For instance, I’m comfortable with my decision-making as an anesthesiologist. However, certain situations tend to make me double think everything. A prime example of this is trauma cases. In general, I’m comfortable knowing what to do, but I sometimes get too many ideas running through my head on how to do it. As a result, I usually ask my colleagues for their opinions/advice.

I know asking for help can be difficult. The last thing you want is to make yourself appear as if you are incompetent. I force myself to think about it as a learning opportunity; by asking for another opinion, I either learn that my original idea was sound or that I could do it another way. That’s a win-win. 

In business, I’ve read several articles that describe good managers as those that play up their strengths and delegate their weaknesses. This is not always possible when practicing medicine, where we are expected to know everything and be good at everything. So for us, I think we can acknowledge and promote our strengths and then ask for help with our weaknesses as we continue to work on and improve them.

Lesson 10. As Women, We Are Much More Critical of Ourselves

As mentioned above, we are emotional creatures. I know I can be very hard on myself. How many of you blame yourselves whenever something goes wrong, even if it wasn’t their fault? Or someone who will berate themselves for days after a perceived mistake was made? Critically analyzing situations and your behaviors is important; however, being so hard on ourselves can be debilitating.

Tackling this issue: Instead, try to use your self-criticism. Learn as much as you can from your mistakes, from your awkward interactions and build yourself up rather than beat yourself up. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, not even a crazy smart attending physician like yourself. As much as you think about your mistake long after it happened, everyone else has likely forgotten about it.

So be nice to yourself and give yourself a break. Doing so is associated with emotional resilience and psychological well-being. (Read more here)

In Summary:

There’s a learning curve when you become an attending physician, and everyone goes through it. So, give yourself a chance to figure things out; give yourself breaks; forgive yourself; take care of yourself; keep an open mind so that you continue to learn and grow, and don’t let anyone or any situation bring you down.

Be confident (you will figure it out)

Be forgiving (to yourself and others)

Be open and caring (to yourself. Self-care, then care for others).

Do you have anything to add to this list?

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