Perry Initiative Promotes Women in Orthopaedics

Two UAMS medical students practice drilling with a replica human bone Oct. 26 during the Perry Initiative workshop.

Ruth Thomas, M.D., director of the UAMS Center for Foot and Ankle Surgery, right, discusses orthopaedics with UAMS medical students during the Perry Initiative workshop. 

Two high school students work on a replica human spine during the Perry Initiative workshop at UAMS.


Nov. 13, 2012 | Dozens of female medical students and high school students got a first-hand look recently into the world of the orthopaedic surgeon as part of a national initiative to increase the number of women in the field.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) hosted the workshops Oct. 26 and 27 by The Perry Initiative, headquartered in San Francisco.

The day-long session for 27 high school girls was similar to the one held last year at UAMS. But new this year was a workshop for first- and second-year female UAMS medical students, making UAMS the first in the nation to host The Perry Initiative’s Medical Student Outreach Program.

“To increase participation by women in the field, we need to show these young women in medical school and in high school that the obstacles that once existed to them entering the field of orthopaedic surgery are gone,” said Ruth Thomas, M.D., director of the UAMS Center for Foot and Ankle Surgery. “They can enter the profession and succeed.”

Fewer than 7 percent of all practicing orthopaedic surgeons and doctoral-level engineers are female, according to The Perry Initiative, which holds workshops around the country to try to raise that number.

During the workshops, 22 female medical students and 27 female high school students used surgical power tools to drill, saw and insert rods into replica leg bones and knees. The replicas were made to reproduce the actual weights and densities of real, human bones to demonstrate to the students that women can physically do the work of an orthopaedic surgeon.

“The skills lab was there to introduce them to the concepts in orthopaedics, and the engineering in orthopaedics, to convince them that it’s fun,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of myths about orthopaedics, including that you have to be really strong. There have been at least two women who came through this program who were no taller than 5 foot 3 inches. You don’t have to be huge.”

The Perry Initiative’s workshop was brought to UAMS by Thomas and Dana Gaddy, Ph.D., professor of physiology and biophysics and an adjunct professor of orthopaedic surgery.

Jenni Buckley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware, and Lisa Lattanza, M.D., a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of California at San Francisco, founded the organization.

Thomas said new surgical technology and new techniques make it possible for women to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery.

The university has several female orthopaedists who can mentor young women, and that’s one of the reasons The Perry Initiative chose it as a partner in its outreach, Gaddy said.

“UAMS is in the unique position of having the highest percentage of women orthopaedic surgeons in any clinical department, I think probably in the country,” she said. “Five of 18 UAMS and VA orthopaedic surgeons are women.  That’s quite a huge percentage.”

The students also heard presentations from Thomas and other UAMS women in orthopaedic surgery, including Theresa Wyrick, M.D., Karen Seale, M.D., and C.J. Vidala, M.D. Buckley also led sessions on safety training.

A panel discussion with medical students covered career/life balance.

Gaddy said she was encouraged by the number of specific, practical questions the medical students asked — things like how to get a preceptorship and what scores are needed to obtain a residency.

Both Gaddy and Thomas said they have heard positive feedback from the students who participated.

Medical students during their training and education typically only have one week of exposure to orthopaedic surgery. Gaddy said that’s hardly enough time get a feel for what the career entails and whether a student might be interested in it. So, The Perry Initiative workshop provides students with some additional time to explore it as an option and an opportunity for the organization in conjunction with UAMS to encourage students to shadow orthopaedic surgeons when they can.

 “We’re gaining in recruitment, but we want to go faster,” Thomas said.

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