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A Conversation With Dr. Archana Chatterjee, Dean of Chicago Medical School

A nationally recognized educator, researcher and specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, Archana Chatterjee, MD, PhD, is the first female medical school dean in the nation with reported Indian descent, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Your deanship is historic and it’s also timely in light of the AAMC Gender Equity Initiative announced in January. As a recent past chair of the AAMC Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS), you must have been part of that push.

We have been pushing this rock up the hill for a long time. The AAMC, which has been very receptive to our advocacy efforts, reports that while 50% of graduate students enrolled in STEM programs are women, less than 25% of STEM faculty members are women. It also recognizes gender disparities in research funding, leadership and compensation, and recognition. We have a long way to go on this journey. It’s not enough to identify the problem. We have to implement solutions that bring parity to our women trainees and faculty. GWIMS continues to focus on equity for women and specifically for women of color.

Will gender equity be a priority for you as dean?

It absolutely will. As the AAMC states, gender equity is key to achieving excellence in academic medicine. I am proud to be part of Rosalind Franklin University, which is walking the walk by recruiting a woman president, provost, medical school dean and podiatric medical school dean. Our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion helps us train a healthcare workforce that can meet the needs of all patients and recognize and eliminate disparities in care that harm the health of people and communities.

What has been your experience as a woman in medicine?

The scars are well hidden. I started at a time and place where it was not common for women to go to medical school. I attended a military medical school, the number two medical school in India, where only 20 women out of 120 students were admitted. I spent five years as an army general medical duty officer. It was a small military base and other than a few nursing officers, I was the only woman in uniform, the only one who lived in officers’ quarters. I was in my early 20s and it was as though an alien creature had descended on the place! After I moved to the United States, for the first few years I was a graduate student and my mentor was a woman, an amazing person and a great role model. But once I entered residency and fellowship training, I faced the same difficulties, barriers and discrimination that I had experienced on the other side of the world. I was a little older, more mature and better able to handle it. I experienced a particularly difficult time when I entered academic practice, which is not an easy path for any woman to tread. I faced a lot of discrimination, I believe because people were not ready for a woman, let alone a woman of color, to be assertive and to stand up for herself.

Over the course of your career, you have mentored over 100 faculty members and graduate, medical and summer research students. Why have you made mentorship such a priority?

Because it is critical to success, and it’s something we do relatively poorly in academic medicine. We’re doing better. We’re now assigning mentors to medical students. But once people move into faculty roles that’s sometimes lost, to the detriment of our junior people as well as senior people who provide the mentorship. The benefits of mentorship flow both ways. It’s so important to offer faculty mentorship. I expanded a junior faculty mentoring program in my department at University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine (USD SSOM), in addition to starting a Women in Medicine and Science program. I also helped spark interest in specialty interest groups, founding the first one for pediatrics. My daughter, who is in her first year at USD SSOM, has been interested in pediatrics since she was a kid. But I’ve been cautioning her to take the time to explore other options. As you go through clinical experiences, you might change your mind, and that’s okay. She discovered that she loved adult neurology; she really liked the specialist she shadowed. I challenge her and every student to look deeper than the specialty to the qualities and actions of the role models who inspire.

What is your leadership style or philosophy?

I place great value on helping others at every level. If you talk to any physician, anyone in the biomedical sciences, they will tell you the reason they entered the profession is to help people, to cure disease. Some of my formative experiences led me to recognize that the path to success does not need to be so difficult, that I can help others along the journey so they don’t have to face the barriers I did. That’s what I have tried to do. All of us come to work every day to try to do something meaningful and I have had a wonderful opportunity to do that in academic practice and leadership, first at Creighton [Creighton University School of Medicine, Omaha, NE] and then at USD SSOM. I hope to do that at RFU. Two aspects of leadership are most important to me: to be a servant leader, to show the path and remove obstacles; and to be a transformative leader, so that I leave behind something long-lasting to impact the people and their institution.

What do you see as unique to a community-based medical school like CMS?

I have practiced and taught in both a traditional hospital setting and community-based setting, including a transition to the latter at Creighton. The strength of the community-based model is that it’s real-life medicine. You’re out of the ivory tower and into the diverse settings in which 99% of our graduates will practice. So it’s wonderful they have an opportunity to learn in that environment. RFU offers the best of both worlds: a university education strongly rooted in interprofessional collaborative practice. That’s a huge strength. CMS graduates are well-prepared to practice with other health professionals because they have learned with them. The challenge is the competing interests of our preceptors, who are responsible for patient care. But I have found that clinicians as a whole like to teach. It gives them a sense of achievement beyond patient care. A physician’s life can be very difficult. That opportunity to step away to talk to a student and explain what you are trying to do can be therapeutic. The literature on physicians who teach shows they have a lower risk of burnout, that they find teaching rejuvenating. I often challenge learners on the actual meaning of the word ‘doctor’. It comes from the Latin verb docere, ‘to teach’. Even if we are not formal educators, we are teaching our patients, along with the healthcare team. We are all teaching all the time.

What are your top-of-mind issues on the future of medical education and practice?

The role of technology. As I talk to my colleagues who have, like me, been brought into this technological age that has inserted itself into medicine, I think of how those technologies can cut both ways. The electronic medical record (EMR) has changed our practice tremendously and improved the health of our patients and populations through data collection and sharing. But we also see how this awesome tool can pose a barrier to the doctor-patient relationship. When I see patients, I refuse to chart in the exam room. I do it later. I know that’s a luxury not within reach of every practitioner. But if we’re engrossed in the EMR, we can’t listen well. We’re not asking the best questions. We need to work to improve that.

Wellness is also top of mind. The rate of suicide among physicians is twice that of the general population. One-quarter of the population struggles with mental health issues that are hidden or go untreated. This is something we have to change. We need to make sure we are not burning out our best and our brightest across the health professions. We need to make sure we are supporting them throughout their education, helping them to be well-adjusted students and to continue with that behavior and model that behavior as they go into their practice years. We are making some changes. Boards that issue licenses are asking, ‘Have you had any mental health issues?’ You would have to be a superman or superwoman to not have! We are working to have these questions removed or modified to erase the stigma of mental health.

Posted April 6, 2020
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