Former ATS President Dr. Finn Outlines Challenges Facing Women in Medicine

“If you want a seat at the table, don’t wait to be invited” and “racism and social justice are health care issues” were the two resounding themes when Patricia Finn, MD, former president of the ATS, took to the stage at the Women’s Forum on Monday, May 16.

Patricia Finn, MD
Patricia Finn, MD

Dr. Finn, who was recently appointed the first female dean of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, spoke of her own journey from Alphabet City — the once-gritty lower East Side neighborhood of New York, where she grew up — to the Windy City — where she served most recently as associate program director for the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Dr. Finn’s brother died without medical insurance, which prompted her to seek a career in medicine and sparked her interest in the intersection of health care and racism and social justice.

She explained how diverse academic medical groups are far more productive than all-white ones because they foster diverse perspectives and prepare white medical students to better treat non-white patients. The result, she said, is an overall improvement on health disparities.

She cited one study that showed African Americans are three times more likely to die from an asthma attack than their white counterparts. Black people, she said, are also more likely than white people to get treatment for asthma in emergency rooms and use corticosteroids, but less likely to see specialists.

Dr. Finn also outlined strategies for success in medicine and academia, including building a network, setting boundaries, and leading with a purpose to promote inclusion.

She also noted that more needs to be done to support and retain women after they graduate from medical school. She cited a study that showed 50 percent of medical students are women, but that number diminishes dramatically and continuously in higher academic ranks.

Dr. Finn also spoke of the increased stressors that have been placed on women during the COVID-19 pandemic, because in addition to working outside the home, the bulk of the household labor, as well as child and elder care, have fallen on their shoulders.

Studies have shown that women saw higher levels of mental health issues due to burnout than men, and that they had little to no time for self-care, she said. Women’s sleep and diet suffered, and exercise fell by the wayside. They also reported feeling isolated. In the field of medicine, Dr. Finn said, this all resulted in productivity challenges for physicians, researchers, and teachers.

She implored the women at the forum to “beware of thinking about your own experience, because we all have skin in the game.”

One way to improve conditions in medicine, research, and academia, she noted, is to get a place at the table where decisions are made, even if it means inviting yourself.

She quoted Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” then showed a photo of the 2017 House Freedom Caucus where the topic was women’s health care. The large conference table in the White House was surrounded by white men — and only white men.

Patricia Sime, MD, FRCP
Patricia Sime, MD, FRCP

“Women’s rights are human rights,” Dr. Finn declared and stressed the importance of women supporting women through mentorship.

She noted that the word “mentor” originated in “The Odyssey,” when Odysseus left for the Trojan War, and placed his old friend Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus. “The wild goddess” Athena, as Dr. Finn described her, would often visit and advise Telemachus under the guise of Mentor.

“Probably because men wouldn’t listen to you unless you took the form of a man,” Dr. Finn quipped.

Patricia Sime, MD, FRCP, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, was also recognized as the 2022 recipient of the Elizabeth A. Rich Award at the Women’s Forum. The award is presented to an outstanding woman in the ATS who has made significant contributions in the fields of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine. Nominees for the award are judged on four equally weighted criteria: contributions to the field, leadership, mentorship, and ATS service.

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