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Lessons Learned—AMWA Women Physician Leaders Tell Herstory

The number of women physicians who attain senior positions has improved ever so slightly, with fewer than 28% of them attaining dean-level positions in medicine, according to findings from a Kaiser Survey. Moreover, the gender pay gaps persist with white male physicians making an estimated 25% more than women physicians over a 40-year career, according to data gathered by Doximity, with women physicians of color receiving far less. There are no specialties in which the compensation of women physicians is the same as or more than male physicians.

Lessons Learned are Shared By 13 AMWA Women Physician Leaders

In a new book, a group of selected women in leadership roles shares their career paths with the goal of improving the trajectory of the women in medicine who are poised to lead. Nearly half (13 out of 32) of the storytellers are from the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) featured in Lessons Learned: Stories from Women Physician Leaders, published by the American Association for Physician Leadership (2022).

“In the spirit of what Shelley Zalis, senior contributor to ForbesWomen, wrote: Women who support women are more successful, the AMWA leaders offer insights while regaling us with stories about obstacles overcome and satisfying careers realized,” says Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, MD, MPH, AMWA President (2022-2023) and Professor of Medicine, Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership. “The laudable achievements of these accomplished women physicians—whose diversity spans a range of demographics, geographies, and specialties—demonstrates the heights to which women physicians can rise.”

The contributors to Lessons Learned are women who are defying the odds who touch on the unique hurdles that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and share the individual obstacles they have overcome while striving for leadership roles in medicine, according to book editor and author, and AMWA leader, Deborah M. Shlian, MD, MBA, who is CEO of Shlian & Associates, Inc., an executive/physician search and medical management consulting firm. Shlian also speaks of the need for a “paradigm shift…a new way of thinking about work and leadership” that views women as the solution.

“From these women, we learn that if there is not a path, we can create one. If the path is not well-trodden, we must walk it to make it passable for the next generation. If the path is narrow, we must walk with others as we widen it,” says Dr. Rohr-Kirchgraber, who wrote the book’s Foreword.

Women Physicians Create Paths to Leadership

Asha Padmanabhan, MD, medical director of anesthesia at Bethesda West Hospital, is an immigrant woman physician who never viewed herself as a leader until faced with the need to step up to help save her clinical practice. “I’ve come to realize that when opportunity knocks, say yes and walk through the open door even when you don’t know how; you’ll figure it out. Approach every opportunity with the intention of doing your best; you never know how your life will change for the better until you do.” One way to get through any challenge is to reach out to a support community, which can often be through the American Medical Women’s Association.

Mentoring Means Someone Believes in You

What prompted Traci Thompson, MD, MBA, CPE, Regional Vice President for Humana Healthy Horizons of Florida to become a physician? “It comes down to a semi-retired nurse who told me at age 12 that I was smarter than many doctors she knew so she knew I could do it,” says Dr. Thompson. “Her belief in me was enough to have believed it, too, and I did; then after more than a decade in clinical practice, I felt ready to pivot from individual patient care to improving access to quality care at the population level.” Ultimately, she believes her career successes can be traced to great mentors. “I now make mentoring a priority for every member of my staff.” 

Seeking Solutions in Women’s Health

Elizabeth Garner, MD, MPH, a Chief Medical Officer of ObsEva and AMWA President-Elect, “is driven to improve women’s lives because women’s health has long been neglected in research and delivery of care.” Her goal is “to play a key role in changing this landscape by bringing the issues women deal with every day to the forefront of investment, science, and development.” One main takeaway, she says, “Understand the ‘back story’, particularly for women who are disproportionately adversely burdened, and the value of women relying on women is reflected in my passion to seek better treatments from within the pharmaceutical industry and my role within AMWA.

The Detours Become the Path

“My plan to pursue a traditional career never really materialized,” says Eliza Lo Chin, MD, MPH, AMWA Executive Director: “Though I began as a clinician-educator, my journey took a turn when I became a physician writer, took time off to raise my family, and then connected with likeminded peers and mentors at an AMWA meeting. That fortuitous meeting led to leadership positions including the presidency, and ultimately assuming the role of executive director, a position I have grown with for the past 9 years. Organizational leadership, unlike clinical leadership, requires team building, trust, and shared goals, and so I say, “’be open,’ if it’s your passion, you will be on the right road.”

Making a Case for Coaching—What’s In It for You?

“I am fortunate to have led a life where one experience has led to the next, having worked in academic medicine, serving as a regional director for the Department of Health & Human Services, and later the Veterans Health Administration, and using my MBA to turn around clinical practices. Hence, my axiom—Find a need and fill it, whatever it takes,” says Margaret Cary, MD, MBA, MPH, Founder and CEO of The Cary Group Global. “As such, I have two takeaways to offer—Relationships are the foundation for all we do, and Life is a balancing act—the balance of risk and security. I have applied these along my very circuitous path, leading to my current venture: an all-volunteer coaching and leadership development program for medical students, A Whole New Doctor, which brought me back to academia on terms I feel great about.”

Aim High, Think Big, and Fulfill Your Dreams

“I have held a myriad of leadership roles prompted by my guiding philosophy: “Shoot for the stars—when you miss, you might land on the moon…Pursue the moon landings with zeal!,” says Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, MD, President of Oakland University. “I am committed to building safe places for my teams to foster collegial collaborators and intelligent risk-taking,” she says. “I recommend the 80/20 Pareto Principle for time management —20% of your time should be focused on activities that offer the greatest return on investment, providing 80% of the value. Doing away with the other 80% of activities, however, may require yet another tactic, like the 4Ds strategy (Do, Dump, Delegate, Delay).”

Follow Your Passion and You’ll Find Satisfaction

“I have been fortunate to remain where I trained, transitioning from one role to the next, and trailblazing many firsts within the institution,” says Donna Parker, MD, Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland. “I have learned how beneficial it is to request additional leadership training whenever a new leadership opportunity presents itself. I’ve also come to recognize that it is essential to get to know your system or organization very well before implementing any changes, all the while, assessing what is working and what isn’t. Then, figure out who has the power to make the desired changes (until that person is you!), and make a sound case to get buy-in. Lastly, ASK for a title to fit your work, a raise, or whatever you deserve—If I had not asked for some of these things, they wouldn’t have happened.”

Recognize the Bumps as Opportunities

Kathleen Yaremchuk, MD, MBA, holds 3 Henry Ford Medicine Chairs: Department of Otolaryngology, Board of Governors, and the Health System Quality and Safety Committee. “I’ve learned that life is not a straight line and the journey can be rocky,” she says. “For example, I experienced a situation in which my reputation was called into question because I chose to speak up and rock the boat. Should this happen to you, or you reach what seems like a ‘dead end,’ look for a way to add new tools to your toolbox and make a change. This may mean reaching out to your professional organizations or societies. By reinventing myself, I was able to overcome a temporary setback and become a highly favored expert at my institution.”

Collect and Apply the Wisdom of Others

“I view my path as embracing useful lessons taught by others, starting with my grandfather who said, “If you have a gift and you don’t use it, no confessor can absolve you,” says Patricia Gabow, MD, former CEO of Denver Health. “Leadership is about knowing your gifts, growing your gifts, and using them in the service of others. My mentors set high bars, challenging ‘if you don’t stretch, you won’t grow.’ Leadership should be viewed as a long game; if something is important to do, keep trying until you achieve it. Now, I view my retirement as a “coda,” a time of rounding out—a time to focus on passing on the learnings passed from me to others.”

Pushing Through the Hard Times, Including COVID

Daniela Sosa, MD, is in her first year of residency in med-peds at the University of Michigan: “I found purpose in my journey that began as a Cuban immigrant and daughter of a single mother. Yet, the road to medicine has included hard lessons and stumbling blocks that I chose to meet as I faced down personal doubts, fear of failure, and loneliness over years of my medical education and training. The slowing down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic enabled me a time for self-reflection and a new direction – a path to leadership that emphasized values over results and the importance of relationships, service, and purpose.”

Networking and an Openness to Change Brought Rich Opportunities

“My 40-year career as a medical manager took many unanticipated turns and relocations,” says Christine A. Petersen, MD, MBA, “which helped me to become agile and adaptive to many management styles and roles along the way. When, after 10 years as CMO, the health services company was sold, I chose to retire, and start a consulting firm, which presented a whole new set of challenges. After earning an MBA, I accepted a position that gave me operational experience including responsibility for overseeing facility construction. My consistent networking and an openness to relocate with the support of my family enabled me to pursue every new opportunity with joy.”

These are but a few of the compelling journeys presented in Lessons Learned; Stories from Women Physician Leaders (2022) all are meant to offer lessons learned for women in medicine —current and future — to contemplate and gain inspiration from as they set out on their own career journeys as women physician leaders Purchase your own copy of Lessons Learned: Stories from Women Physician Leaders (AAPL, 2022).


  • Whaley CM et al. Female Physicians Earn An Estimated $2 Million Less Than Male Physicians Over A Simulated 40-Year Career. Health Affairs; 10(12)2021.
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  • KP Richter, L Clark, JA Wick, et al. Women physicians and promotion in academic medicine. New Engl J Med, 383:22;2020:2148-2157.
  • 2020 Physician Compensation Report. Available Accessed at: March 15, 2022.


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