PETALING JAYA: Being invited to speak at Mayo Clinic is no small matter and Datin Dr Sharmila Sachithanandan (pic) made full use of her speaking invitation.
She used her platform at the renowned academic medical centre in Minnesota, United States, in May to speak about empowering more female gastroenterologists.
Dr Sharmila co-founded the Women in Gastroenterology Network Asia Pacific (WIGNAP) in 2014 to support women in the field of gastrointestinal medicine.
Female gastroenterologists, she said, are a rare find although the majority of medical graduates are women.
“About 70% of medical school graduates are female, yet only 10 to 15% of gastroenterologists in Malaysia are female,” said the consultant gastroenterologist.
“There are certain fields in medicine that are male-dominated, mostly specialties that are procedure-based such as surgery, orthopaedics or cardiology.
“Women may feel intimidated by the complex procedures, some of which involve radiation – so some women may also feel hesitant to go into this field because they are worried it may affect their chances of having children.
“However, technology has improved, so it’s actually safe,” she said.
The other contributing factor to the low numbers of female gastroenterologists, she added, was the lack of mentors.
However, having more female gastroenterologists, she added, would be beneficial for female patients seeking treatment, as many feel more comfortable with a doctor of the same sex.
One way of supporting female gastroenterologists, she said, is to highlight the achievements and successes of female gastroenterologists as having role models help inspire younger women.
“A lot of these women gastroenterologists are very good, but they don’t get the chance to be speakers at conferences so we try to make sure that some women are able to showcase their skills,” she said.
WIGNAP, she said, creates networking and mentoring opportunities and now has about 14 member countries.
Training workshops, she said, were held across the Asia Pacific several times a year and they hold annual sessions at the Asia Pacific Digestive Week.
The next step forward, she added, would be to collaborate with Mayo Clinic to start a fellowship, which would fund junior female doctors in Asia to travel to other parts of the world for training.
Recalling the challenges in getting WIGNAP off the ground, Dr Sharmila noted that the partnership of other male doctors is instrumental to women empowerment.
When she first mooted the idea of WIGNAP, she said, there were male doctors who were sceptical of the idea.
“Some joked ‘would you be discussing lipsticks?’ Now, they are silent and I just smile at them,” she said.
However, there had also been many male doctors, she added, who had trained women under WIGNAP.
“We believe it takes a combined movement that involves men in the conversation to effect change,” she said.
For her personally, the mother-of-three gets support from her husband and brother – both of whom are doctors.
Her biggest inspiration, however, remains her mother, who had to play the role of a single parent when her father died when she was 13.
When asked what could be done to help empower Malaysian women, she said better childcare and paternity support are needed.
“Right now we do not have the infrastructure to help women re-enter the workforce after giving birth,” she said.