Women Leaders in Medicine: Fighting burnout and empowering female physicians

When Dr. Dawn Sears began her career in medicine, she was often the only female in the room. But as more and more women pursue careers as surgeons, physicians and clinical leaders, that number continues to grow.

Today, women in medicine have more hope and opportunity than ever before — but barriers to progress remain.

A few years ago, Dr. Sears began noticing a troubling trend. Young women were leaving medical school eager to conquer the world, but after two to three years in practice and starting to grow their own families, these women felt overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, 85 percent of women physicians regularly feel burned out.

Women physicians face a unique set of pressures and strains, according to Dr. Sears. In addition to being capable physicians, women are expected to be compassionate and fashionable, approachable and supportive. As a result, women physicians face mounting social, familial and occupational pressures that often hold them back from pursuing leadership opportunities — or cause them to leave the medical field altogether.

While this pattern is troubling on its own, the impact of burnout extends beyond the physicians it impacts. Patients, too, feel the effects of physician burnout.

Inspired to drive change, Dr. Sears gathered a diverse group of 10 other women physicians and got to work.

In 2017, this initiative began as a half-day summit of about 120 Baylor Scott & White physicians and leaders in Central Texas. Shortly thereafter, the group was awarded a $150,000 grant from The Physicians Foundation to reproduce the program with a strong data-gathering focus to see if they could reduce burnout among women physicians through leadership development and networking opportunities.

Now, these efforts have grown to twice-yearly gatherings of more than 300 women physicians that take place across North and Central Texas. In addition to these summits, the program includes networking events, online connections and support groups, and mentorship relationships, all aligned to disciplined research efforts.

“Explore."

Related: Why diversity matters in healthcare

Together, these women are working to empower, engage and inspire women across our healthcare system and beyond.

A data-based approach to solving burnout

What makes this program truly unique is its evidence-based approach.

“We have objective data on 150 different points, from school debt to special needs children to specialty to hours,” Dr. Sears said. “We’re collecting all of this longitudinally and on the same person to be compared with themselves from two years ago. In between, we’re looking into which programs did they participate in and what difference did they make?”

While many across the world are searching for ways to enable and uplift women, few have taken such a data-driven emphasis. By objectively measuring 15 different programs, Dr. Sears and team hope to discover what truly moves the needle for women in medicine.

“I feel like God has placed me in this position for such a time as this,” Dr. Sears said. “To lead in a really neat way that only I can do because only I can tell my story of being in a specialty that, at the time, was only 3 percent women and is now up to 13 percent women.”

One element that has already proven significant is the emphasis on relationship building and mentorship.

“Our data shows that whether you are the mentor or the mentee, your burnout scores decrease,” she said. “It’s all interpersonal. To have these real-life connections and chances to foster each other has a tremendous positive impact. That’s our secret sauce.”

According to Dr. Sears, the response to this program has been overwhelming. From seasoned doctors and surgeons, to fresh residents and eager medical students, participants have poured out words of gratitude, praise and support. In an April 2019 survey, 85 percent of attendees said the Women Leaders in Medicine program helps prevent burnout.

Related: 11 powerful stories from women who inspire us for the better

Women empowering women

Dr. Sears’ life path has uniquely qualified her to lead this charge. As a mother of three, including one daughter with special needs, and as a physician in the often demanding field of gastroenterology, she leads from hard-earned experience.

“I feel like God has placed me in this position for such a time as this,” Dr. Sears said. “To lead in a really neat way that only I can do because only I can tell my story of being in a specialty that, at the time, was only 3 percent women and is now up to 13 percent women.”

Although being a female gastroenterologist is rare, Dr. Sears has not let that slow her ambitions down. She is now the chair of the gastroenterology division at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple, where she is making her voice heard.

“I see that the biases that we all carry are lessening,” she said. “Instead of assuming, we’re listening and we’re asking questions. Just being able to have these conversations speaks volumes. But we’ve got to move forward together.”

Through the Women Leaders in Medicine program, Dr. Sears has witnessed women come together and realize that they are not alone in this fight. Across the healthcare system, women are banding together to support, empower, re-engage and advocate for one another.

And it’s already making a noticeable difference.

“I see that the biases that we all carry are lessening,” she said. “Instead of assuming, we’re listening and we’re asking questions. Just being able to have these conversations speaks volumes. But we’ve got to move forward together.”

While this program is making waves throughout the Baylor Scott & White Health system, its impact will soon be felt across the nation. According to Dr. Sears, the plan is to distribute this program to other healthcare systems in the U.S. By sharing best practices, their ultimate goal is to embolden other organizations across the country to invest in their female physicians and help develop a brighter healthcare future for us all.

“We will all be stronger if we see this as part of what we always do,” she said. “Everyone is doing their own little projects, but we think this will be a great model of how to do it very deliberately.”

Discover more stories of how women are changing the future of healthcare.

About the author

Grace Glausier
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Grace Glausier is a senior digital engagement strategist for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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Women Leaders in Medicine: Fighting burnout and empowering female physicians