Women in Medicine: Patricia Watson

Celebrating the female trailblazers in medicine and medical sciences at Texas A&M
September 4, 2017

At Texas A&M, we celebrate the American Medical Association’s Women in Medicine Month this September by highlighting a few of our extraordinary female researchers, scientists, physicians and students who are making meaningful contributions to medicine every day on our campuses and across the globe.

Patricia Watson, MD, is one of these remarkable women. She is a psychiatrist and interim head of the Department of Humanities in Medicine at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. She also a member of the College of Medicine’s charter class, which began medical school 40 years ago this year. To help mark Women in Medicine Month, she answers some questions about the profession and her life.

Q: Why did you choose to become a psychiatrist?

A: I went to medical school to be a family physician or pediatrician, definitely not a psychiatrist. When I did my clinical rotations in medical school, the first rotation was on psychiatry. I was startled to learn that psychiatrists can be pretty normal people, and they take care of patients who are pretty medically ill. Then I saw the patients they treated make remarkable progress in just a couple of weeks. After that I found the work with patients—whether on surgery or obstetrics or medicine—always had me wondering about the impact of their illnesses on their mental health. Ultimately psychiatry seemed the specialty that was the most interesting to me.

Q: Why did you choose academic medicine?

A: After many years in private psychiatric practice, I became very interested in the issue of resilience and burnout and began working in that arena. A couple of conversations with experts in the field tuned my attention to medical education and its impact on future doctors. When given the opportunity to join the faculty in order to work with medical students, I jumped at the chance.

Q: How has academic medicine changed as more women have joined the profession?

A: When I was in medical school, we had several professors who were women, but there was only one female physician. Female mentors were hard to find. I also recall hearing the chair of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine say that when she had something important to contribute to a discussion, she would often lean over to one of her male colleagues and ask him to say it because she knew her female voice would often be dismissed, but if her male colleague spoke her idea, it would be heard and considered. Now things are better, but not perfect. When you look around now you see many more women in decision making positions and we no longer have to have someone speak our ideas for them to be heard.

Q: What else can be done to support women through the academic process?

A: Academic culture was built by men; therefore, it accommodates their lifestyles. Now that women have a seat at the table, we must ask if the design is right for everyone while mentoring in an inclusive manner.

Q: Why Texas A&M?

A: I earned my undergraduate degree as well as my MD from Texas A&M, and my parents and one daughter also went here, so I am an Aggie through and through. When I came into a leadership role at Texas A&M College of Medicine nearly three years ago with the idea to bring resilience training to Aggie medical students they said “yes.” When you get to do what you are called to do at your beloved alma mater, it doesn’t get better than that.

Q: What accomplishment do you consider to be the most significant of your career to date?

A: As a psychiatrist, I am aware of people alive today who would not have survived but for the work we did together. As a professor, I have been proudest of my team in humanities finding ways for first-year medical students to interact in meaningful ways with real patients in what we call the White Coat Experience.

Q: How are you advocating for women’s health issues?

A: Personal resilience and whole-hearted living are definitely about women’s health. My newest endeavor is supporting research into the impact of intimate partner violence on physicians.

Q: Are there any women in medicine, past or present, who inspired or influenced you to pursue a career in the field?

A: As a child, I read a biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree; that is how I knew that women could be physicians. Until I was in medical school and met actual female physicians, the only ones I was familiar with were from books and fiction.

Q: What obstacles have you personally faced as a woman in medicine?

A: The hardest thing for me was balancing personal life and career. Fortunately, I had the support of family in raising my children.

Q: What hurdles do we need to overcome for women in medicine?

A: First, compensation is a significant issue. There continues to be quite an income difference between women and men in medicine, even when controlling for specialty choice.

Second, we need to identify ways for physicians to parent with fewer sacrifices. A physician must put the care of the patient first. Being a physician will always come with personal and family sacrifice given the nature of caring for others, but I think we are nearing the limits of physicians being able to work harder and longer for the good of their patients and at the expense of their families. We need to find a better way.

Finally, by percentage there are fewer women admitted to medical school than graduate from college; this isn’t truly a hurdle in itself, but I believe it reveals where there is a hurdle.

Q: Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give young girls who want to pursue a career in medicine?

A: I know of no other career that offers the profound experiences that medicine regularly provides. If medicine is your calling, don’t let anyone steal your dream. There will be people who tell you a woman cannot be both a good physician and a good wife and mother; don’t believe them. There are people who will tell you this is a terrible time to become a doctor because of the changes that are afoot in medicine; this is erroneous thinking. Times of great change provide the opportunity to make a difference. If you are called to be a physician you are called to make a difference; never let the potential problems steer you away from this amazing profession.

Q: What is your personal motto?

A: I have two: No day but today. What’s worth doing even if I fail?

— Christina Sumners

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