If you’re a woman and a physician feeling overworked and burnt out, Dawn Sears, MD, has a message for you: “You don’t have to leave medicine.”

I sat down with Dr. Sears to talk about the new ACE Conference (“Authenticity, Courage, Empowerment”) she co-founded to stop the hemorrhaging of women from medicine. You can attend the ACE Conference, created by and for women physicians, from April 28 – May 1, 2022, in San Antonio, TX.

Empowering women physicians

Dawn Sears, MD, radiates success. She’s a practicing gastroenterologist, professor, certified executive coach, mother of three, and keynote speaker. But Dr. Sears’ success hasn’t come easily. “Earlier in my career, there were days when juggling everything felt like too much,” she explains. 

On the more challenging days, Dr. Sears would find herself asking, “What am I doing? Is this what I wasted my 20s and 30s and went into $100k in debt for? Is it worth it?” As she spoke with female colleagues about her doubts, she realized many women physicians experience burnout and question the sustainability of their lifestyle.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Sears continued practicing and took on leadership roles at her organization. But she began to notice that she was often the only female physician in boardrooms full of men. Other women noticed, too, and began reaching out for advice and mentorship. 

“We often have more responsibilities – at work and home – than our male colleagues, but we’re held to the same standards,” Dr. Sears told me. “This is a source of burnout and stress for many women, and some choose to leave medicine altogether. I saw that we need a safe, supportive space to have these conversations.”

What began as one-on-one mentoring turned into a Women Leaders in Medicine summit focused on helping female physicians at her organization establish peer-to-peer support, build leadership skills, and develop advocacy efforts. Eventually, Dr. Sears received a grant from the Physicians Foundation to expand the program and reach more women. The program eventually enrolled over 25% of the 1,000 female physicians at Dr. Sears’ organization.

The ACE Conference emerged from Dr. Sears’ experience implementing the Women Leaders in Medicine program, which proved that getting female physicians together to collaborate impacted retention and burnout.

Gender inequality in medicine

Dr. Dawn Sears doesn’t mince words: “Don’t tell me to be more resilient. We need to start having conversations about how to change the system. To make hiring female physicians the norm, we need policies that sustain these people in medicine.”

“We work harder, and our outcomes are better, but we make less money,” Dr. Sears explains, offering an example from her specialty, gastroenterology. Just 10% of gastroenterologists are female, but 60% of GI patients are female. And female patients often want a female gastroenterologist. Female patients also have fewer polyps, which means physicians who see them perform fewer procedures and get reimbursed less overall for their visits.

Many examples of physician gender inequality are more explicit. For example: 

  • Women in academic medicine have lower starting salaries 93% of the time. These gender-based disparities impact physicians’ earning potential throughout their careers.
  • Female physicians receive 24% more staff messages and 26% more patient messages than male colleagues. This may explain why female PCPs spend 20% more time in the EHR inbox. 
  • Women physicians spend more time on parenting and domestic labor than their male counterparts. A study of early-career physician-researchers found that women spent 8.5 hours more per week on household activities, even when accounting for spouse’s employment and other factors. 

Women physicians face gender and sexual discrimination

It’s not just these work and pay disparities that affect women physicians. Gender and sexual discrimination are a persistent part of the hospital workplace. 

“I’ve had colleague and patients hit on me,” says Dr. Sears, “and just last month, I had a patient threaten me because I wouldn’t prescribe them narcotics. Patients are much more likely to be aggressive and disrespectful to a female doctor.”

Dr. Dawn Sears is on YouTube at GutGirlMD

These conditions make medicine a more challenging and less rewarding professional space for female doctors. Dr. Sears believes the solution is twofold: empower women through coaching and collaboration and begin conversations that move the system toward gender equality.

“We need flexible jobs and real maternity leave,” Dr. Sears says. “Women’s bodies are more complex than male bodies during the working years, so we need to have hard conversations about this. Women should have at least an extra five days of paid leave because of health complications and child care expectations. We act like this is an extreme circumstance, but it’s entirely predictable. Why don’t we plan for it?”

Over half of medical students are now women, and Dawn Sears is helping employers see that they may need new policies to sustain their current and future employees in medicine. “It costs over $250,000 to recruit a single new physician,” Dr. Sears explains, “so it’s in everyone’s best interest that we figure this out.”

Join the ACE Conference

From April 28 – May 1, 2022, an influential group of women physicians will convene at the La Cantera Resort and Spa in San Antonio, Texas. Nearly 30 speakers and coaches will join 110 participants ready to build their plan for what they want the next version of themselves to be as they emerge from the pandemic. 

If you’re a woman and a physician who is ready to “renew your life and your career,” this conference is for you. The treatment plan is mindset work, coaching, and collaboration. Dr. Sears and her team hope to create a safe space where women physicians can share their challenges and connect with others to facilitate authenticity, courage, and empowerment. 

“Time scarcity isn’t in your head,” Dr. Sears emphasizes, “you do have literally less time and are held to the same expectations. But you don’t need to quit. There are ways to do things differently.”

For example, Dr. Sears believes many women physicians need to break up with perfection. “It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and to talk about that and process it. When we step back and look at the situation, maybe we need to have different standards for ourselves. Having boundaries doesn’t make you a bad person. Claiming your worth doesn’t have to make you greedy.”

Dr. Julie La Barba, MD, interviews Dr. Dawn Sears on her podcast Paging Dr. Mom

What to expect at the conference

The ACE Conference will combine elements of a traditional conference – speakers, lectures, and networking – with activities you would more likely expect at a wellness retreat. There will be creative workshops and physical activities like yoga and Zumba. It’s an opportunity for busy doctors to put aside their EMR and pick up a notebook for a few days. 

“The last two years have been really challenging for physicians, especially for ER and trauma and ICU doctors who have been on the COVID front line,” Dr. Sears recounts. “The conference is about helping women physicians find the courage to stay in medicine or start a side gig supporting other women or whatever is right for them.” 

Most conference speakers are coaches, which means they are trained to empower and hold space for participants. “We want to help people remember that it’s an amazing, sacred opportunity to be a physician right now, so let’s embrace it and elevate each other.”

A growing movement

ACE isn’t the only women empowerment conference for physicians. 

For example, Dr. Sasha Shillcutt founded an event series called Brave Enough that helps women physicians overcome burnout and learn to set work-life boundaries. Mayo Clinic hosts its annual GRIT event focused on removing barriers and bias toward women leadership in medicine, and Harvard hosts its Emerging Women Executives in Health Care conference. 

One thing that sets the ACE Conference apart is its emphasis on coaching. In addition to being a practicing physician, Dawn Sears is a certified executive coach. Her two co-founders are also coaches, and the conference is bringing in eight coaches who work specifically with physicians. Oh, and the 21 speakers? Half of them are coaches, too. 

Coaching empowers people to shift their mindset and show up thoughtfully, regardless of the circumstances. The quickly growing profession is a good fit with Dr. Sears’ mission of helping women find ways to make medicine work for them. 

“This is a conference for you,” Dr. Sears concludes. “Invest in yourself, ladies.”

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