As a child, I remember watching a newscast of Dr. Ben Carson operating to separate conjoined twins. The 1987 procedure garnered international attention and made Dr. Carson famous. I'll never forget how I felt seeing, for the first time, a Black surgeon who looked like me. I knew then that I wanted to become a doctor.
My path to medical school was derailed by a car accident after my high school graduation. The injuries I sustained ruined my chance to secure a sports scholarship to attend college, which would have eased the financial burden on my family. While recovering in a hospital bed, I saw a commercial about pursuing a career as a surgical technologist. My devastation over missing out on medical school was replaced by hope for another way into the OR.
Becoming a surgical tech sounded interesting and would require attending community college for two years instead of eight years of schooling that would saddle me with crippling student loan debt. I could begin working after a couple years of training and start earning a good salary.
I'm now well into a successful career as a surgical tech, which began because I was exposed to a Black surgeon at a young age and learned about a profession that at the time I didn't know existed. I know from personal experience that it's important for people of color to see others who look like them succeeding in surgery. There are gaps to fill with respect to the representation of minorities in perioperative departments. How can we fix this persistent problem?
- Early awareness. When "surgical professionals" are discussed, many people think of surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists. Successful surgical teams also include other professionals such as surgical techs, surgical assistants and physician assistants. Exposure to these other roles has to begin at an earlier stage to bring greater awareness to the professions. I wasn't aware of the possibility of becoming a surgical tech until after I graduated from high school.
Surgical professionals who represent minority communities could visit middle and high schools, church groups or recreation centers to talk about their experiences and include presentations about their profession if people are interested. These recruitment attempts could be part of career fairs or career days at schools. Let's inform the next generation of workers about the benefits of working in a variety of surgical roles.
Traditional colleges aren't for everyone. Minorities who might not have the means to attend an expensive university need to know about careers with great incomes that they can enter after attending a community college or trade school. I think more kids would be interested in working in surgery if they were aware of other ways to enter the field.
- Targeted outreach. I chose to become a surgical tech because I saw an advertisement on television. Although commercials are an outdated way to reach younger generations, the same impact can be made through social media. Digital campaigns designed to highlight various careers in surgery can be launched on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. The accounts of surgical professionals who are active on those platforms could also be promoted. We need to capitalize on new and creative ways to reach today's youth.
- Better recruitment. Minimal representation in surgery could also be a result of direct or indirect discrimination at recruiting or management levels. I often joke that "I'm a white woman on paper" because my career accomplishments and experience result in receiving a lot of calls from recruiters. At times I wonder if it's simply because my name doesn't automatically give away my ethnicity when I'm seeking a new job. I believe that even in our current society, having a stereotypical Black name can result in missed opportunities for jobs regardless of qualifications due to discrimination or bias, and that shouldn't happen. Representation in surgery could be improved with programs aimed at looking for candidates to fill open positions beyond the typical outlets or through recruitment events held within minority communities.
- Second chances. Here's an outside-the-box idea: Recruitment efforts could focus on halfway houses or reentry programs where individuals are working hard to overcome past problems and reestablish themselves in society. Healthcare systems, hospitals or professional societies could help launch programs or provide scholarship money for these individuals to get the schooling or training they need to begin a career in surgery. These organizations could hire externship coordinators who would set up training programs and hold participants accountable to established protocols and requirements. The individuals who complete these programs would learn skills they can be proud of, become candidates for employment and earn salaries that would prevent them from remaining part of the welfare and rehabilitation systems. These programs would eventually create more diversity of experience in surgery.