The ACC Corner | Lessons from the Field: A Woman in Cardiology

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 - Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis, MD, FACC

“You don’t want to be a doctor. You want to marry a doctor.” These words spoken by my mother were fighting words. I knew at age 10 that I wanted to be a doctor. Although discouraged by family and societal norms for women, my love for science and the desire to help people propelled me to my current profession—a seasoned cardiovascular professional with nearly 30 years under my belt.

When I first started in medicine, I faced patients who distrusted my expertise and senior partners who doubted my ability to negotiate contracts—even asking my husband for approval—because of my gender. However, the patient and partner reactions only made me more determined to break down barriers.  

Clearly at that time, we were on the cusp of change for women in medicine—particularly in cardiology. Not only were more doors opening to women on a professional level, but there also was the need for further research to be conducted on women and heart disease, as well as opportunities for female leadership roles.

Over the last couple of decades, patient distrust of female doctors has dissipated, and the culture of medicine has evolved to be more inclusive of women becoming physicians. Statistics show that nearly equal numbers of men and women are graduating from medical schools in the U.S. While the number of female cardiologists has doubled over the past decade, it still falls far short of the parity seen in other specialties.

This evolution is apparent as I proudly watch my older daughter’s medical school and cardiology fellowship experiences. I am excited about the doors that are open to her as a female cardiology fellow and she and her female colleagues can seek mentoring from more senior women as they negotiate their future in cardiovascular medicine.

Regardless of gender, my daughter and the next generation of cardiovascular professionals face new challenges—those of navigating both the practice of medicine and the business of medical practice amidst unprecedented changes: the upheaval in practice models, the societal perception of physicians and the uncertainties of the future of healthcare delivery.   

Support and wisdom of seasoned cardiovascular professionals is critical. We must continue to mentor the next generation of providers, while listening to their needs. There also is a great need to actively provide the next generation with the leadership skills, tools and experiences essential to continuing to improve cardiovascular health in a changing world.

Opportunities like those provided by the American College of Cardiology’s (ACC) Cardiovascular Leadership Institute are important to our success. The college in January held a “Heart of Women’s Health” program with the goal of helping cardiovascular professionals meet the unique care needs of their female patients. In addition, the “Women’s Career and Leadership Development Conference,” held in February, offered a unique opportunity for women cardiologists to improve their leadership and career skills in both the practice and academic setting. The two-day program provided insights into conflict management, effective communication strategies and work-life balance.

As we move into the future, we need to build on these tools and develop a well-defined roadmap for leadership and business training for all members of the cardiac care team at all stages of their respective careers. I want to know that my future grandchildren will have the support and resources they need to succeed and be happy should they decide to follow in my footsteps.

Dr. Lewis practices cardiology at Northwest Cardiovascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is governor of the ACC Oregon Chapter and serves on the ACC Advocacy and Women in Cardiology committees.