• Article
  • May 2, 2017

Fewer Women Enter Neurosurgical Residency Than Other Surgical Specialities

A medical minority: Pediatric neurosurgeons reflect on their roles and the future of the profession.

Donald Scribe Ross
Drs. Taryn Bragg and Ruth Bristol debunk myths about being a neurosurgeon.

Neurosurgery is a bit of an acquired taste among surgical specialties. According to the American College of Surgeons Public Health Institute, the number of neurosurgeons in the U.S. grew by 26 percent between 2005 and 2009. Compare that to dermatological surgery, the fastest-growing surgical specialty, which grew at a rate of 188 percent.

For women neurosurgeons, the numbers are even smaller. To put it simply: There is never a line for the ladies room at national conferences. The number of women entering neurosurgical residency is disproportionate to the number of women in medicine. Women account for 46 percent to 60 percent of medical school graduates in the U.S., but only 5 percent of board-certified neurosurgeons, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Bucking the national trend, the pediatric neurosurgery team at Phoenix Children's Hospital is made up of 50 percent women. "We work hard to construct teams who challenge each other to develop the best solutions for our patients," says Daniel Ostile, M.D., surgeon in chief, Phoenix Children's.

But why aren't more residents choosing neurosurgery? For some, it comes down to perceptions. Ruth Bristol, M.D., neurosurgeon at Phoenix Children's, was exposed to neurosurgery early in medical school. "I had an interest, but I was concerned about the stigma: If you're entering neurosurgery, you can't have a personal life," she says. "But I realized the connotations about neurosurgery were outdated—from a day when residents were expected to live at the hospital." Today, she says, neurosurgery residents have manageable hours and a life outside of residency.

Another factor could be the amount of education required to become a neurosurgeon—it can take around 11 to 13 years following college, which is daunting. But encouragement and camaraderie among peers is key to thriving during residency and beyond. "My peers are like family," says Taryn Bragg, M.D., neurosurgeon at Phoenix Children's. "We support each other and push each other's limits to break boundaries."

As practicing surgeons, networking at national meetings also helps build camaraderie. Doctors share their expertise and exchange best practices with peers outside their immediate circles. And often, these connections span states and countries and offer new perspectives.

Bragg and Bristol say their strong interest in working with children and a desire to creatively solve complex problems led them to the job. They say the best part of their work is the opportunity to improve the quality of a patient's life at an early age. And they want more people to experience that.

"Now that women make up more of the top candidates in every medical school class, we are anxious for that to be reflected in neurosurgical training," Bragg says. "It's our job to encourage talented medical students to consider this field and to stick with it." To do this, Bristol suggests facilitating mentoring among faculty and residents. "Having a female counterpart, even if not in the same facility, can make a difference in a resident's early experiences."

To ensure the specialty continues to advance, organizations should build teams who challenge each other by looking at patients' issues from all perspectives. "This will push the field forward," Bristol says.

Ruth Bristol, M.D., and Taryn Bragg, M.D., are pediatric neurosurgeons at the Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children's Hospital. Share your opinions. Email magazine@childrenshospitals.org.