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Spotlight on Women in Surgical Oncology

2 August 2018
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Dr. Miriam Mutebi, Breast surgical oncologist

Aga Khan University Hospital, Kenya

Some of the leading causes of premature death in women in Sub-Saharan Africa include maternal and cancer-related deaths, with breast and cervical cancers being amongst the top. All these are amenable to surgical intervention and if treated appropriately, require some surgical input.

There are very few women in surgical specialties in Kenya, and it has only recently begun to increase.

We don’t necessarily have any East African data, but data from West Africa shows that by 2016 less than 1% of 5,000 surgeons in the region are female. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 9 out of 10 people have no access to safe surgery. We need to increase capacity.

The shortage in female surgeons isn’t for lack of interest as most medical schools are about 60% female and 40% male with the majority of our health workforce being around 80% female, when including nurses and other medical professionals. However, there is a definite need for surgical services, and if we are ignoring over 50% of the workforce by not encouraging them to pursue a career in surgical specialties, then we are doing our patients a disservice.

For me it’s a no-brainer; we need to encourage more women to get into surgical specialties to expand the workforce.

Women bring a unique perspective to diversifying the workforce and understandably, female patients sometimes prefer female clinicians. Discussing breast- or cervical-related problems with a male physician can sometimes be a little uncomfortable. That is not to say that male clinicians can do nothing, but from a patient perspective, depending on the cultural context, it could sometimes help to ease certain barriers.

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We have formed the Pan-African Women’s Association of Surgeons to create a platform which provides mentorship, networking opportunities and support for women who are interested in surgical specialties. We are trying encourage women to become advocates for women’s health promotion and improvement in their particular health ecosystems. Recently, we invited senior breast cancer oncologists from Sudan and NYC to talk to surgical residents and younger surgeons in training. They highlighted what it entails to have a career in this particular field and how to make an impact. In addition, we have been facilitating a social and educational forum where people are engaged routinely, which is not necessarily limited to oncology, but to any challenging surgical cases, whether oncology related or otherwise. This helps to build interaction across the continent and get people talking about some of their challenges, such as compensation and discrimination in the workplace. The team and I hope to support younger female surgeons and medical students over a more consistent period. It’s one way to start the conversation. There’s room for huge trajectories to improve care in our region through encouraging women in surgical specialities.

Treatment for All

Dr. Mutebi’s work exemplifies the goals of Treatment for All’s second and third pillars, Early Detection and Treatment. By encouraging more women to become surgical oncologists throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, she is expanding access to care at the earliest possible stages.

About the author

Dr. Miriam Mutebi is a breast surgical oncologist at Aga Khan University Hospital  in Kenya and recently completed a Clinical Epidemiology and Health Systems Research Degree at Cornell University. She became a Young Leader in 2016 and was recently awarded the 2018 African Cancer Fellowship with the UICC. She continues to support the UICC through various activities, such as acting as a SPARC grant reviewer and speaking on a panel at the upcoming World Cancer Congress in Kuala Lumpur. Dr. Mutebi feels passionately about encouraging women to become surgeons throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and has fostered the creation of the Pan-African Women’s Association of Surgeons.

Last update: 
Friday 3 August 2018
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