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Written by Marybeth Kotrodimos
Featured photo: Dr. Rupa Wong and Dr. Elizabeth Tam.

October 21, 2020 — 2020 has brought unprecedented changes to the way we share information, carry on traditions, and hold events. We’ve also seen a new significance placed on those traditions, both emerging and long-standing, which bring to light the struggles and accomplishments of those whose voices have not always been heard or fully appreciated in our culture.  This year, the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) merged two events which present speakers whose work and ideas inform us of the value of diversity and inclusiveness in healthcare and in society as a whole.

Each September, since 2015, in commemoration of Women in Medicine Month, JABSOM’s Office of Faculty Affairs and The Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence (NHCOE) have hosted The JABSOM Women in Medicine Speakers Forum.  For this event, speakers are invited to share their stories in an effort to showcase the accomplishments of women physicians as well as highlight advocacy related to women physicians and health issues impacting women patients. This year’s theme was “Advancing Equity, Creating Change”.

The Women in Medicine Speakers Forum became a part of the Diversity Matters series of speaker events which was presented virtually this year. This larger event, in its second year at JABSOM, is held each Friday in the month of September. In the words of co-planner Lori Emery, Program Specialist at the Office of Faculty Affairs, this event presents “a series of panelists who share their knowledge, background and expertise on areas of diversity and inclusion such as increasing awareness and advocacy and promoting discussion for individuals with disabilities, sexual and gender minorities, race and culture, and women’s role in medicine and health sciences.”

Presenters in the Diversity Matters series spoke on such topics as Game Changers for Diversity, Advocating for Individuals with Disabilities, Racial and Cultural Justice, Diverse Paths to Wellness, Increasing Visibility and Inclusivity for Sexual and Gender Minorities, Cultivating Compassion through Mindfulness, as well as Women in Medicine.  

Dr. Elizabeth Tam and Dr. Rupa Wong were the keynote presenters for the Women in Medicine event, the final set of talks for the Diversity Matters series.  Dr. Winona Lee, Director of the ʻImi Hoʻōla Post-Baccalaureate Program and Principal Investigator of the JABSOM Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence, who, along with Lori Emery, coordinated this event, called Dr. Tam and Dr. Wong, “exemplars within the medical profession who serve as compassionate clinicians for their patients and academic leaders in their field.  Most importantly,” she said, “they are visible and engaging as mentors for students and trainees enrolled in medical school and residency.” 

Dr. Lee, who also serves as AAMC Diversity Officer and Facilitator of JABSOM’s Mindful Practice Hawaii, added that they “are grateful for the support provided by JABSOM’s Dean Hedges to create safe spaces to bring forth critical discussions on diversity and inclusion during our Diversity Matters 2020 sessions and it is an honor to host the Women in Medicine event as the final culminating event.”

University Health Partners’ (UHP) Dr. Tam is Professor and Chair of the Department of Medicine as well as the American Lung Association of Hawaii and Leahi Fund Endowed Chair in Respiratory Health at JABSOM.  She has been a member of JABSOM’s faculty since 1992, and Chair of Medicine for 15 years. She was the 2016 recipient of the Breathe Easy Champion Mauli Ola (Breathe of Life) award from the American Lung Association of Hawaii, and a Board member of ‘Ahahui o na Kauka, Association of Native Hawaiian physicians.  She continues to actively teach and mentor pre-medical and medical students. 

Dr. Tam began by saying that she grew up in Hawaii “before the big renaissance in Hawaiian understanding and appreciation.”  Her mother, who was part Hawaiian and a teacher in the public school system, told her when she was filling out school forms, “Don’t put down that you’re part Hawaiian because teachers and others will label you as dumb and lazy.  I grew up with that.  All through high school, I kept it quiet and didn’t exalt in that.”  

She started college as an undergraduate at University of Hawaii at Manoa, and then transferred to the University of California – Davis, where, Dr. Tam said, she “found out that partial Hawaiian girls can do just fine,” and found that being Hawaiian “became not something to hide, but something to share and highlight.”  She was quick to add, however, that the faculty at UH were very supportive and encouraging as well.

Dr. Tam attended medical school at UC San Francisco, where she met her now-husband.  They were fortunate enough to be matched for residencies at neighboring hospitals in Boston:  she at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School and he at Massachusetts General.

She was pleased to find that that the people at that prestigious institution where she did her residency “were not arrogant. They were very helpful to me in every way, yet these are the people whose names you see in the New England Journal of Medicine. That didn’t stop them from being genuinely nice.”  She said that what she experienced there was “the same aloha” that she felt when she returned to Hawaii and began working at JABSOM, but added that she hasn’t found that to be true elsewhere. 

After their residencies, Dr. Tam and her husband both found jobs at UC San Diego, but wanted to be in Hawaii. Her husband found work at Straub, but she stayed behind for a while with their two children and two dogs until she was hired at JABSOM.  As a result, she says, she places importance on trying to keep new faculty with their spouses.

Her advice for new doctors is “Make sure you keep your mentors!”  Her mentors, which she said had mostly been men, proved to be a very important to her and her development as a physician.  She said that she has received a lot of questions asking her about how she dealt with discrimination. “Actually,” Dr. Tam said, “maybe I’m just blind, but I didn’t experience that in medicine itself. I was blessed. I really had wonderful mentors.”

“I’ve also learned a lot from my faculty,” Dr. Tam said, “who, before this wellness push, told me, ‘Liz, stop sending emails at 2:00 in the morning!’ They wanted me to get some rest and actually that did help a lot.”

In addition to that advice, Dr. Tam concluded by saying, “My philosophy in all this is, as a mom, a teacher, and a physician, you get so that people don’t need you anymore. You push for this independence and empower them. That’s my goal. That’s generally how I’ve operated.”

Likewise, Dr. Rupa Wong, who spoke after Dr. Tam in this event, agreed that her mentors were crucial to her development as a doctor.  Consequently, she has been very active in creating opportunities for medical students and doctors to benefit from the knowledge of more experienced physicians. 

A busy mother of three, Dr. Wong is an ophthalmologist who serves as managing partner of Honolulu Eye Clinic, the practice she opened and shares with her husband, JABSOM alumnus Dr. Jeff Wong.  Dr. Rupa Wong attended Duke University and Cornell Medical School. She completed her residency in ophthalmology at New York University, where she served as Chief Resident during her final year, and completed a fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

As the daughter of a child psychologist mother and a supportive engineer father, Dr. Wong said that because of the example they set for her, she never felt that she was limited in her opportunities as a woman.  Like Dr. Tam, she also talked about the importance of having a supportive spouse, saying that her husband is not threatened by her “taking center stage.”  While she runs their shared practice, her husband, who she said “is more technical” handles all the technology for the clinic.  She laughs when she says he calls himself “her employee.”

Dr. Wong said she dislikes the word “balance” used in the context of work/life balance which connotes “the idea of perfect symmetry” between life and work, which she believes is not possible, especially for a woman in medicine. She said she prefers “work/life harmony, work/life fit, or work/life integration.” 

Much of her talk focused on this idea of work-life integration. She spoke about how, as physicians who were just opening the Honolulu Eye Clinic, she and her husband found out they were pregnant for the first time.  Dr. Wong transformed a small storage room in the clinic into a nursery for her future children to use as she and her husband practiced medicine. In her presentation, she showed a picture of the clinic staff with her husband and three children, saying, “It’s all combined.”

Two and half years ago, Dr. Wong became active on social media.  She is currently on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, along with maintaining her blog, Dr. Rupa, and starting a YouTube channel.  Dr. Wong said she was drawn to social media when she saw so many people who are “considerably younger” than she is using it and felt that people could benefit from the perspective of a more experienced doctor.  

“If they only see people their age – in their 20s and early 30s – they’re not getting that mentorship” which she finds is so very crucial for new doctors. She was especially motivated to do this when she started getting a lot of questions from young female pre-med and medical students who were saying that they were being told things like they couldn’t be a surgeon and a mother. 

Dr.  Wong also said people now want to know “the person behind the white coat.  Fifty years ago, doctors came to your house and were part of the community,” whereas these days, there is more separation between the patient and the physician. “I think being on social media allows my patients to connect with me and it deepens that relationship in a different way.”  She said that social media has been “extremely worthwhile” for her as a physician.

Talking about how she started Attending Physician, an online membership site that offers advice for female pre-med and medical students and resident physicians, Dr. Wong said, “With Instagram, I then started this hashtag campaign where asked all my friends who were attending physicians to provide advice: ‘What advice would you give your younger self?’  There were 100s of people who wanted to be a part a part of it. It was a really great way to get information out and start mentoring.”

This project gave birth to another:  The Association for Healthcare and Social Media. “A bunch of us that are physicians,” she said, “felt there was a need and a responsibility to create content that was educational and combated misinformation that we received – like celebrities advising people to give their infants goat’s milk.” 

Then, prompted by the women she met on social media, she and three other women she knew formed Pinnacle, a conference for women physicians dedicated to filling in the gaps in business knowledge that medical school doesn’t address, such as dealing with banks and accountants, or handling issues like “gender pay inequity or how to negotiate your employment contracts or to do your own marketing and branding. I felt we needed a venue to explain that,” said Dr. Wong. 

She also serves on the board of directors for Project Vision Hawaii and Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as the Association for Health Care in Social Media. 

Dr. Wong’s work demonstrates her belief that women in medicine need to support each other. “It is just so important that we all empower each other and we all collaborate with each other. There is a tendency in medicine to feel like we’re competitive with one another,” she said. “It starts in pre-med and I think we can be better than that.”

Like Dr. Tam, Dr. Wong applauds the people who gave her the guidance she needed as she entered the medical field and has made it a focus of her career to pass that support on to others. This is the spirit of programs like Women in Medicine and Diversity Matters – to empower and elevate those around us, to celebrate our differences as we help each other be the best we can be.

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