Orthopedics group hangs "Women Wanted" sign

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Women wanted! Willingness to wield saws, drills and repair knees a must. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) is actively seeking women to join the almost all-white male profession.

While the ranks of women in medical schools and other medical disciplines has swelled in recent decades, the number of women in orthopedics remains woefully low.

There were only 367 female orthopedic surgery residents, or 11 percent of the total, in the United States in 2007, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (AAOS). By comparison, there were 3,596 female residents in Obstetrics/gynecology, or 76 percent of the total, in 2007, making OB/GYN among the top specialties for women.

“We’re not sure why this is so,” said Dr. Mary O’Connor, associate professor and department chair of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

She surmised it could be a lack of exposure to orthopedics and that there are few role models. She said it might also be the negative messages that tell would-be female orthopedic surgeons that the job requires physical strength and is too demanding to balance with family life.

“Let the women worry about how they’ll handle kids. I do it,” O’Connor said. “So get over it. Women can do orthopedic surgery.”

As the number of women specializing in orthopedics remains stagnant at low levels, the number of female orthopedic patients continues to rise faster than that of men.

Attracting more women into the orthopedic field would encourage a focus on sex and gender differences, O’Connor added.

Dr. Claudia Thomas, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, was the first African American female orthopedic surgeon.

She did her residency at Johns Hopkins in 1975. She said of the time: “It was pitiful; you could count (the number of women) on one finger.”

Thomas said the challenge lies not in debating whether disparities exist, but in developing strategies to reduce and eliminate them.

O’Connor said the AAOS is “finally getting it” and has sponsored the campaign to attract women to the specialty.

Dr. Lisa Cannada, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Southwestern Medical Center in Texas, said mentoring young women is crucial to attract them into this field that has not increased recruitment over the past 10 years.

Mentoring opportunities include holding career days, establishing medical school groups and acting in state and national associations.

Dr. Charles Rosen, a spine surgeon and professor at the UCI Medical Center in Orange County, California, said he does not see much of an increase in the number of women entering the field.

“The women we see are usually of a higher caliber, but there just aren’t that many of them,” he said.

The orthopedist’s arsenal looks much like a carpenter’s, dominated by heavy metal -- cages, screws, saws, drills and metal implants for joints such as hips and knees.

That does not mean women should be excluded from the tool box.

Cannada said she would be thrilled if her daughter chose to become an orthopedist.

“Yes, you can play with these tools for a living,” she added.

Editing by Andre Grenon