Early exposure helps cultivate diversity in orthopedic surgery

The orthopedic workforce is not as diverse as the population it serves, and we know that this might be a key factor in addressing disparities and inequalities that affect patients’ healthcare.

Despite previous efforts to address the issue, there still remains a lack of gender and racial diversity. So what can be done to make the field more inclusive?

Dr. Melvyn Harrington, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, says the key is to expose women and underrepresented minorities to the field even earlier than medical school.

Unfortunately, for many years, there has been a misconception that orthopedic surgery is a “man’s field.” Previously, there was more physical manipulation required in the care of patients; however, the emphasis is now on technique and finesse. Harrington believes the physical requirements should have never been seen as something that only male orthopedic surgeons could achieve.

Ebony Jernigan, a medical student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and 2019 Nth Dimensions Summer Internship Program participant.
Addressing the lack of diversity in medicine

The lack of underrepresented minorities is still an issue across the board in the physician workforce, not just in orthopedic surgery. There are not enough underrepresented minorities in medical schools and residency programs.

Most medical students who choose to pursue orthopedics are interested before they matriculate into medical school, based on personal experience and exposure to the profession.

There is a need to continue building pipeline programs that will encourage the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum in early childhood. In addition, orthopedics-specific programs targeted toward students also should be embraced.

Two examples of this type of outreach include the Perry Initiative and Nth Dimensions. The Perry Initiative offers a hands-on learning experience for young, talented women interested in the fields of engineering, medicine and orthopedic surgery. The program is targeted toward high school, college and graduate-level female students.

Nth Dimensions, which is geared towards medical students, focuses on increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in orthopedic surgery. Nth Dimensions works with orthopedic surgeons from across the country to allow first-year medical students to shadow them in the clinical setting.

The impact of hands-on clinical experiences

This summer, Harrington hosted Ebony Jernigan, a medical student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, through the Nth Dimensions Summer Internship Program.

Dr. Melvyn Harrington, right, with Ebony Jernigan.

“The summer internship seemed like a great opportunity to get exposure, but what really captured me is what happens after the internship,” Jernigan said. “There is so much continuing support and it seemed as if they were going to be there every step of the way. Mentorship and empowering others is important and I could tell that the Nth Dimensions program would help shape me into someone who can do the same for the next group.”

Jernigan completed her undergraduate degree in exercise science and knew she wanted to pursue orthopedics.

“I was aware of the disparities. Most orthopedic surgeons do not look like me.  This can be a bit intimidating but not enough to deter me from pursuing a career in orthopedics. I can confidently say that after the internship and being a part of the program I am less intimidated and I am getting prepared,” she said.

Jernigan shadowed Harrington in the clinic and the OR and said one of the things that she struggled with before the internship was reading X-rays – a skill that Harrington and his team worked closely with her on this summer.

“Dr. Harrington caters to each patient’s circumstance, their story and of course their physical health and plans accordingly. That is an invaluable skill that I have learned and can build on.”

Her takeaway from the experience was that the field of orthopedic surgery requires physical work, patience, time, concentration and diligence.

“It is not easy but it’s most certainly something that is attainable for anyone who puts the effort in, including women and minorities. With the right support and hard work I can be an orthopedic surgeon just like Dr. Harrington and be great at what I do.”

Harrington encourages institutions and departments to prioritize the implementation of diversity and inclusion, as leadership dictates the culture of any organization. He says institutions should consider a holistic approach when reviewing residency applications and emphasize a welcoming culture for trainees who enter the field.

“I look forward to a future when our field is representative of our patient population, and I remain committed, as I have for more than 20 years, to help work toward this goal.”

 -By Dipali Pathak

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