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Training the next generation of surgeons

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Training the next generation of surgeons

​It's always a proud moment when our surgical trainees achieve their goals. 

No more so than when —after almost a decade of training, predominantly at Western Health — a trio of female trainees become Surgeons. 

Dr Nicole Tham, Dr Mathilda (Tilly) Anderson and Dr Carolyn Chew were recently awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (FRACS).  

Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Abi Arul said their achievement is recognition of their hard work and commitment during years of rigorous training and the unwavering support from their personal and professional networks, including mentor Director of Surgery Dr Meron Pitcher (AM). 

"It's a huge task for any human being to study that intensively over 8-10 years and to maintain a balance with their personal lives, but women in particular may also be raising children or caring for loved ones, so there is an additional challenge that they face," Dr Arul said. 

"It's really remarkable for three female surgeons to finish at the same time and we are so proud to have been able to support them through their training at Western Health." 

Women make up 13 per cent of surgeons in Australia, even though more than half (55 per cent) of medical graduates are female. 

A recent report by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, which aims to increase diversity in the surgical workforce, found that some of the barriers to considering a career in surgery were around balancing professional and personal commitments. 

This included perceptions about flexibility in training and their careers, and how they could accommodate current or future dependents. 

Dr Pitcher said becoming a medical specialist still required intense dedication and time commitment over many years. 

After becoming a General Surgeon, which can take up to a decade, many people will choose to pursue a surgical subspecialty, such as colorectal, hepato-biliary or breast surgery. 

This requires further training, which often involves learning from experts, which may require moving overseas or interstate. 

However, Dr Pitcher said there had been a major shift towards greater flexibility within surgical training and the profession itself. 

"There have been significant changes over the years that mean surgeons work collaboratively with other medical specialists to care for a patient after surgery, which reduces the reliance on the one surgeon," Dr Pitcher said. 

There are also flexible training and working opportunities available, regardless of gender.  

"Some of the barriers to becoming a surgeon are about perception distinct from reality, for instance, at Western Health we offer job sharing and part-time surgical trainee positions," Dr Pitcher said. 

"This flexibility is not specifically for women, it's for people who have other commitments, such as family, research or just want a work life balance."  

"I've also had a number of women in the past few years, who have gone on maternity leave during their surgical training, including Tilly and Nicki. 

"These three surgeons are demonstrating not that you can have it all — because I don't think anyone can—but that it is feasible to pursue a successful surgical career and have a family.  

"To do this they also need a supportive network at work and home." 

Dr Pitcher and Dr Arul are encouraging medical students or junior doctors, who are interested in becoming a Surgeon, to back their own ability and know that it is possible to pursue the profession and achieve their other ambitions in life. 

"It's about putting yourself forward, have a go and try not to let any intrinsic bias tell you can't," Dr Pitcher said. 

"For me, it was about having people along the way that encouraged me and gave me opportunities and that's what I try to do with our trainees." 

Abi said talking to a colleague or mentor about your career ambition was a great first step. 

"At Western Health we support flexible training for everyone regardless of gender and we also have a wonderful team of leaders who want to mentor others." 

"I think the three female surgeons who have completed their training with us have shown their hard work and determination over many years, but they are also standing on the shoulders of quite a few people below them: their families, mentors like Meron, and all the other people who have invested in them over the years. 

The entire Western Health team is thankful for their service and expertise over many years in serving our community and is looking forward to seeing how their careers unfold over the coming years. 

 "We are extremely proud of them and wish them all the best in the next phase of their careers," Dr Arul said. 

Left to right in photo above: Dr Nicole Tham, Dr Mathilda (Tilly) Anderson & Dr Carolyn Chew.