The Game Plan on “What the Health?” Podcast with Julie Rovner

In this special episode of the Kaiser Health News podcast “What the Health?,” host Julie Rovner, KFF Health News’ chief Washington correspondent, interviews three noted health policy experts. One of them is Sylvia Morris, a physician and one of the co-authors of “The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine,” in which five former medical school classmates share things they wish they had known earlier about how to thrive in what is still a male-dominated profession.

Transcript via KHN is below:

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Sylvia Morris. She’s an internist from Atlanta and one of five authors of a new book called “The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine.” Dr. Morris, welcome to “What the Health?”

Sylvia Morris: Thank you so much for having me.

Rovner: So why does there even need to be a book about being a woman in medicine? Aren’t medical schools more than half women students these days?

Morris: They are. But when you look at some of the specialties, and once you get out into practice, women leaders are still not as plentiful. They are not 50%. So, we just wanted to write from our perspective some tips and tools of the trade.

Rovner: So before we talk about the book, tell us about how you and your co-authors got together. It is rare to find a book that has five listed authors.

Morris: Exactly. So we actually went to med school together. We were classmates at Georgetown, and we met, I will say, in the early ’90s, shall we say? 1992, 1993. And after we finished med school, as well as training, we started doing girls’ trips. Our first one was, like, to Las Vegas and then subsequently have just really evolved. And probably 10 years ago, we were sitting around in Newport Beach and we thought, you know what? We should figure out something to do to really, to give back, but also to share information that we didn’t have. I am a first-generation physician. Several of my co-authors are as well. And it would have been nice for someone to say, “Hey, Doc, maybe you should think about this.” So that’s why we wrote the book.

Rovner: I noticed that, yeah, I mean, you start very much at the beginning — like, way before med school and go all the way through a career. I take it that was very intentional.

Morris: Yes, because I don’t think most people wake up and decide they’re going to be a doctor and then apply to medical school. And although we all have different journeys, some of us decided to become physicians later. Later, meaning in college. I was a kid that always wanted to be a doctor. So at 5, I would say “I want to be a doctor,” and here I am a physician. So we really wanted to highlight the different pathways to becoming a physician and just so that people can just … we’re going to peel the curtain back on what’s happening.

Rovner: I love how sort of list-forward this book is. Tell us the idea of actually making a game plan.

Morris: Well, we’re big “list people.” I think in med school, you kind of learn, well, what’s your to-do list for today? You need to check that CBC. Yeah, you know, you have to follow up on physical therapy, all of those things. So lists become a really inherent part of how we do business. And I think people understand the list, whether it’s a grocery shopping list. So we wanted to be prescriptive, not specific, meaning you must do X, but here are some of the things that you need to think about. And a list is very succinct, and everyone can get it.

Rovner: Which leads right into my next question. I love how this is such a nitty-gritty guide about all of the balancing that everybody in such a demanding profession of medicine, but particularly women, need to think about and do. What do you most wish that you had known when you were starting out that you’d like to spare your readers?

Morris: If I could go back to my 17-year-old self who was just dropped off at Berkeley, I really would say, “Enjoy the ride.” And that sounds so trite, because we get very caught up in “it has to be this way.” And quite honestly, things have not turned out how I thought they were going to turn out. Certainly, in many ways, much grander and beyond my wildest imagination. But you do have to be intentional about what you want. So I’ve been very clear about wanting to be a physician, and I’ve worked along that path. It is never a straight line. So just embrace the fact that there are going to be some ups and some downs, but keep in focus on the goal and persevere. I’d like to borrow the word from Associate Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, how she talked about persevere.

Rovner: I noticed that there are a number of places where there are key decisions that need to be made. And I think, you know, you talk about being intentional. I think people don’t always think about them as they’re doing them, as in deciding where to go to medical school, where to do a residency, what specialty to choose, what type of practice to participate in. The five of you are all in different specialties in different sort of practice modalities, right?

Morris: Yes, we are. And I think that that really adds to the richness of the book. And again, there’s no one way to get to your goal. But we have the benefit of being able to sort of bounce ideas off of each other. So if we are looking for a new job or kind of a career pivot, then we have someone to reach out to to say, “Hey. You did this. What are your thoughts? What should I look out for?”

Rovner: How important is it to have a support system? I mean, obviously, you talk about family and kids, but, I mean, to have a support system of friends and colleagues and people you can actually share stresses and successes with, that others will understand.

Morris: It is so important to know that you are not alone. There’s nothing new under the sun. So if you are going through something where we suffer in silence and isolation, that’s when bad things happen. So having a trusted group of friends, and whether it’s one person or three people — I’m lucky to have at least four people in my life that I can be candid and vulnerable with. It makes all the difference in the world. My mom died when I was in medical school, and having the support of my colleagues, my friends, to say, “Hey, yeah, you can keep going. You can do this.” That’s important. And there are some very low periods in residency, just because you’re tired all of the time. So having a group, whether it’s one or three or four, then please, have friends.

Rovner: I’m curious that while you are all African American women, you don’t really have a separate section on navigating medicine as members of an underrepresented group. Is that for another book entirely? Was there a specific reason that you didn’t do that?

Morris: I think certainly when people see us on the cover, then you’d realize, “Oh, they are women of African descent.” And I also think that because … women are still underrepresented in medicine, in particular in leadership, that we wanted to make sure we reached the broadest audience. And quite truthfully, our message works for not only women, but also works for men, it works for people of color. We just really wanted to say, “Hey, these are the things that we can think about when you are applying to medical school and as you embark on your career.” But I like the idea of a second book.

Rovner: Actually, that’s my … my next question is, what do you hope that men get out of this? Because, you know, flipping through, it’s a really good guide, not just to being a woman in medicine, but to being anyone in medicine or really anyone in a very time-demanding profession.

Morris: Yes, the word “ally” is kind of overused now, but I think that it gives the men in our lives, whether they be our partners and husbands, our fathers — I have a favorite uncle, Uncle William — to have an inkling of what’s happening and how to best support us. So I think that there’s just some valuable pearls.

Rovner: Well, thank you very much. It is a really eye-opening guide. Dr. Sylvia Morris, thank you for joining us.

Morris: Thank you.


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