How Can We Make Medical Training Less 'Toxic'?

Robert D. Glatter, MD; Amy Faith Ho, MD, MPH; Júlia Loyola Ferreira, MD


June 06, 2023

This discussion was recorded on May 16, 2023. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert D. Glatter, MD: Welcome. I'm Dr Robert Glatter, medical advisor for Medscape Emergency Medicine. Joining me today to discuss ways to address and reform the toxic culture associated with medical training is Dr Amy Faith Ho, senior vice president of clinical informatics and analytics at Integrative Emergency Services in Dallas, Texas. Also joining us is Dr Júlia Loyola Ferreira, a pediatric surgeon originally from Brazil, who just completed her Master's degree at McGill University and is focused on advocacy for gender equity and patient-centered care.

Welcome to both of you. Thanks so much for joining me.

Amy Faith Ho, MD, MPH: Thanks so much for having us, Rob.

Glatter: Amy, I noticed a tweet recently where you talked about how your career choice was affected by the toxic environment in medical school, affecting your choice of residency. Can you elaborate on that?

Ho: This is a super-important topic, not in just one specialty but in all of medicine, because what you're talking about is toxic workplace culture that is certainly directed toward certain groups. In this instance, what we're talking about is gender, but it can be directed toward any number of other groups as well.

What you're alluding to is a tweet by Stanford Surgery Group showing their next residency class, and what was really stunning about this residency class was that it was almost all females. And this was something that took off on social media.

When I saw this, I was really brought back to one of my personal experiences that I chose to share, which was basically that, as a medical student, I really wanted to be a surgeon. I'm an emergency medicine doctor now, so you know that didn't happen.

The story that I was sharing was that when I was a third-year medical student rotating on surgery, we had a male attending who was very well known at that school at the time who basically would take the female medical students, and instead of clinic, he would round us up. He would have us sit around him in the workplace room while everyone else was seeing patients, and he would have you look at news clippings of himself. He would tell you stories about himself, like he was holding court for the ladies.

It was this very weird culture where my takeaway as a med student was like, "Wow, this is kind of abusive patriarchy that is supported," because everyone knew about it and was complicit. Even though I really liked surgery, this was just one instance and one example of where you see this culture that really resonates into the rest of life that I didn't really want to be a part of.

I went into emergency medicine and loved it. It's also highly procedural, and I was very happy with where I was. What was really interesting about this tweet to me, though, is that it really took off and garnered hundreds of thousands of views on a very niche topic, because what was most revealing is that everyone has a story like this.

It is not just surgery. It is definitely not just one specialty and it is not just one school. It is an endemic problem in medicine. Not only does it change the lives of young women, but it also says so much about the complicity and the culture that we have in medicine that many people were upset about just the same way I was.

Medical Training Experience in Other Countries vs the United States

Glatter: Júlia, I want to hear about your experience in medical school, surgery, and then fellowship training and up to the present, if possible.

Júlia Loyola Ferreira, MD: In Brazil, as in many countries now, women have made up the majority of the medical students since 2010. It's a more female-friendly environment when you're going through medical school, and I was lucky enough to do rotations in areas of surgery where people were friendly to women.

I lived in this tiny bubble that also gave me the privilege of not facing some things that I can imagine that people in Brazil in different areas and smaller towns face. In Brazil, people try to not talk about this gender agenda. This is something that's being talked about outside Brazil. But in Brazil, we are years back. People are not really engaging on this conversation. I thought it was going to be hard for me as a woman, because Brazil has around 20% female surgeons.

I knew it was going to be challenging, but I had no idea how bad it was. When I started and things started happening, the list was big. I have an example of everything that is written about — microaggression, implicit bias, discrimination, harassment.

Every time I would try to speak about it and talk to someone, I would be strongly gaslighted. It was the whole training, the whole 5 years. People would say, "Oh, I don't think it was like that. I think you were overreacting." People would come with all these different answers for what I was experiencing, and that was frustrating. That was even harder because I had to cope with everything that was happening and I had no one to turn to. I had no mentors.

When I looked up to women who were in surgery, they would be tougher on us young surgeons than the men and they would tell us that we should not complain because in their time it was even harder. Now, it's getting better and we are supposed to accept whatever comes.

That was at least a little bit of what I experienced in my training. It was only after I finished and started to do research about it that I really encountered a field of people who would echo what I was trying to say to many people in different hospitals that I attended to.

That was the key for me to get out of that situation of being gaslighted and of not being able to really talk about it. Suddenly, I started to publish things about Brazil that nobody was even writing or studying. That gave me a large amount of responsibility, but also motivation to keep going and to see the change.

Valuing Women in Medicine

Glatter: This is a very important point that you're raising about the environment of women being hard on other women. We know that men can be very difficult on and also judgmental toward their trainees.

Amy, how would you respond to that? Was your experience similar in emergency medicine training?

Ho: I actually don't feel like it was. I think what Júlia is alluding to is this "mean girls" idea, of "I went through it and thus you have to go through it." I think you do see this in many specialties. One of the classic ones we hear about, and I don't want to speak to it too much because it's not my specialty, is ob/gyn, where it is a very female-dominant surgery group. There's almost a hazing level that you hear about in some of the more malignant workplaces.

I think that you speak to two really important things. Number one is the numbers game. As you were saying, Brazil actually has many women. That's awesome. That's actually different from the United States, especially for the historic, existing workplace and less so for the medical students and for residents. I think step one is having minorities like women just present and there.

Step two is actually including and valuing them. While I think it's really easy to move away from the women discussion, because there are women when you look around in medicine, it doesn't mean that women are actually being heard, that they're actually being accepted, or that their viewpoints are being listened to. A big part of it is normalizing not only seeing women in medicine but also normalizing the narrative of women in medicine.

It's not just about motherhood; it's about things like normalizing talking about advancement, academic promotions, pay, culture, being called things like "too reactive," "anxious," or "too assertive." These are all classic things that we hear about when we talk about women.

That's why we're looking to not only conversations like this, but also structured ways for women to discuss being women in medicine. There are many women in medicine groups in emergency medicine, including:

All of these groups are geared toward normalizing women in medicine, normalizing the narrative of women in medicine, and then working on mentoring and educating so that we can advance our initiatives.

Gender Balance Is Not Gender Equity

Glatter: Amy, you bring up a very critical point that mentoring is sort of the antidote to gender-based discrimination. Júlia had written a paper back in November of 2022 that was published in the Journal of Surgical Research talking exactly about this and how important it is to develop mentoring. Part of her research showed that about 20% of medical students who took the survey, about 1000 people, had mentors, which was very disturbing.

Loyola Ferreira: Mentorship is one of the ways of changing the reality about gender-based discrimination. Amy's comment was very strong and we need to really keep saying it, which is that gender balance is not gender equity.

The idea of having more women is not the same as women being recognized as equals, as able as men, and as valued as men. To change this very long culture of male domination, we need support, and this support comes from mentorship.

Although I didn't have one, I feel that since I started being a mentor for some students, it changed not only them but myself. It gave me strength to keep going, studying, publishing, and going further with this discussion. I feel like the relationship was as good for them as it is for me. That's how things change.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training

Glatter: We're talking about the reality of gender equity in terms of the ability to have equal respect, recognition, opportunities, and access. That's really an important point to realize, and for our audience, to understand that gender equity is not gender balance.

Amy, I want to talk about medical school curriculums. Are there advances that you're aware of being made at certain schools, programs, even in residencies, to enforce these things and make it a priority?

Ho: We're really lucky that, as a culture in the United States, medical training is certainly very geared toward diversity. Some of that is certainly unofficial. Some of that just means when they're looking at a medical school class or looking at rank lists for residency, that they're cognizant of the different backgrounds that people have. That's still a step. That is a step, that we're at least acknowledging it.

There are multiple medical schools and residencies that have more formal unconscious-bias training or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training, both of which are excellent not only for us in the workplace but also for our patients. Almost all of us will see patients of highly diverse backgrounds. I think the biggest push is looking toward the criteria that we use for selecting trainees and students into our programs. Historically, it's been MCAT, GPA, and so on.

We've really started to ask the question of, are these sorts of "objective criteria" actually biased in institutional ways? They talk about this all the time where GPAs will bias against students from underrepresented minorities (URM). I think all medical students and residencies have really acknowledged that. Although there are still test cutoffs, we are putting an inquisitive eye to what those mean, why they exist, and what are the other things that we should consider. This is all very heartening from what I'm seeing in medical training.

Glatter: There's no formal rating system for DEI curriculums right now, like ranking of this school, or this program has more advanced recognition in terms of DEI?

Ho: No, but on the flip side, the U.S. News & World Report was classically one of the major rankings for medical schools. What we saw fairly recently was that very high-tier schools like Harvard and University of Chicago pulled out of that ranking because that ranking did not acknowledge the value of diversity. That was an incredible stance for medical schools to take, to say, "Hey, you are not evaluating an important criterion of ours."

Glatter: That's a great point. Júlia, where are we now in Brazil in terms of awareness of DEI and curriculum in schools and training programs?

Loyola Ferreira: Our reality is not as good as in the US, unfortunately. I don't see much discussion on residency programs or medical schools at the moment. I see many students bringing it out and trying to make their schools engage in that discussion. This is something that is coming from the bottom up and not from the top down. I think it can lead to change as well. It is a step and it's a beginning. Institutions should take the responsibility of doing this from the beginning. This is something where Brazil is still years behind you guys.

Glatter: It's unfortunate, but certainly it's important to hear that. What about in Canada and certainly your institution, McGill, where you just completed a master's degree?

Loyola Ferreira: Canada is very much like the US. This is something that is really happening and it's happening fast. I see, at least at McGill, a large amount of DEI inclusion and everything on this discussion. They have institutional courses for us to do as students, and we are all obliged to do many courses, which I think is really educating, especially for people with different cultures and backgrounds.

Glatter: Amy, where do you think we are in emergency medicine to look at the other side of it? Comparing surgery with emergency medicine, do you think we're well advanced in terms of DEI, inclusion criteria, respect, and dignity, or are we really far off?

Ho: I may be biased, but I think emergency medicine is one of the best in terms of this, and I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that we are an inherently team-based organization. The attending, the residents, and the students all work in line with one another. There's less of a hierarchy.

The same is true for our nurses, pharmacists, techs, and EMS. We all work together as a team. Because of that fairly flat structure, it's really easy for us to value one another as individuals with our diverse backgrounds. In a way, that's harder for specialties that are more hierarchical, and I think surgery is certainly one of the most hierarchical.

The second reason why emergency medicine is fairly well off in this is that we're, by nature, a safety-net specialty. We see patients of all-comers, all walks, all backgrounds. I think we both recognize the value of physician-patient concordance. When we share characteristics with our patients, we recognize that value immediately at the bedside.

It exposes us to so much diversity. I see a refugee one day and the next patient is someone who is incarcerated. The next patient after that is an important businessman in society. That diversity and whiplash in the type of patients that we see back-to-back helps us see the playing field in a really flat, diverse way. Because of that, I think our culture is much better, as is our understanding of the value and importance of diversity not only for our programs, but also for our patients.

Do Female Doctors Have Better Patient Outcomes?

Glatter: Specialties working together in the emergency department is so important. Building that team and that togetherness is so critical. Júlia, would you agree?

Loyola Ferreira: Definitely. Something Amy said that is beautiful is that you recognize yourself in these patients. In surgery, we are taught to try to be away from the patients and not to put ourselves in the same position. We are taught to be less engaging, and this is not good. The good thing is when we really have patient-centered care, when we listen to them, and when we are involved with them.

I saw a publication showing that female and male surgeons treating similar patients had the same surgical outcomes. Women are as good as men technically to do surgery and have the same surgical outcomes. However, there is research showing that surgical teams with greater representation of women have improved surgical outcomes because of patient-centered care and the way women conduct bedside attention to patients. And they have better patient experience measures afterward. That is not only from the women who are treating the patients, but the whole environment. Women end up bringing men [into the conversation] and this better improves patient-centered care, and that makes the whole team a better team attending patients. Definitely, we are in the moment of patient experience and satisfaction, and increasing women is a way of achieving better patient satisfaction and experience.

Ho: There's much to be said about having female clinicians available for patients. It doesn't have to be just for female patients, although again, concordance between physicians and patients is certainly beneficial. Besides outcomes benefit, there's even just a communication benefit. The way that women and men communicate is inherently different. The way women and men experience certain things is also inherently different.

A classic example of this is women who are experiencing a heart attack may not actually have chest pain but present with nausea. As a female who's sensitive to this, when I see a woman throwing up, I am very attuned to something actually being wrong, knowing that they may not present with classic pain for a syndrome, but actually may be presenting with nausea instead. It doesn't have to be a woman who takes that knowledge and turns it into something at the bedside. It certainly doesn't have to, but it is just a natural, easy thing to step into as a female.

While I'm really careful to not step into this "women are better than men" or "men are better than women" argument, there's something to be said about how the availability of female clinicians for all patients, not just female patients, can have benefit. Again, it's shown in studies with cardiovascular outcomes and cardiologists, it's certainly shown in ob/gyn, particularly for underrepresented minorities as well for maternal outcomes of Black mothers. It's certainly shown again in patient satisfaction, which is concordance.

There is a profound level of research already on this that goes beyond just the idea of stacking the bench and putting more women in there. That's not the value. We're not just here to check off the box. We're here to actually lend some value to our patients and, again, to one another as well.

Glatter: Absolutely. These are excellent points. The point you make about patient presentation is so vital. The fact that women have nausea sometimes in ACS presentations, the research never was really attentive to this. It was biased. The symptoms that women may have that are not "typical" for ACS weren't included in patient presentations. Educating everyone about, overall, the types of presentations that we can recognize is vital and important.

Ho: Yes. It's worth saying that, when you look at how medicine and research developed, classically, who were the research participants? They were often White men. They were college students who, historically, because women were not allowed to go to college, were men.

I say that not to fault the institution, because that was the culture of our history, but to just say it is okay to question things. It is okay to realize that someone's presenting outside of the box and that maybe we actually need to reframe what even created the walls of the box in the first place.

Glatter: Thank you again for joining us. I truly appreciate your insight and expertise.

Robert D. Glatter, MD, is an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, New York. He is a medical advisor for Medscape and hosts the Hot Topics in EM series.

Amy Faith Ho, MD, MPH, is an emergency physician, published writer, and national speaker on issues pertaining to healthcare and health policy, with work featured in Forbes, Chicago Tribune, NPR, KevinMD, and TEDx.

Júlia Loyola Ferreira, MD, is a pediatric surgeon from Brazil, who just completed her Master's degree at McGill University.  She is a strong advocate for gender equity and patient-centered care.

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