As the military recognizes its female members as part of Women’s History Month in March, few groups are held in higher esteem than its women physicians, as evidenced by an award the Military Health System initiated in 2010 to honor them.
The Military Health System’s, “Building Stronger Female Physician Leaders in the Military Health System” award program selects up to six female physicians — one senior and five junior winners, from each of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and U.S. Public Health Service. Selectees will have made significant contributions to military medicine and served as exemplary role models to female military doctors.
Navy Cmdr. Nicole McIntyre, M.D., was this year’s Navy junior winner. An otolaryngologist — ear, nose and throat specialist, by training, McIntyre is president of the medical staff at Portsmouth Naval Hospital Va., where she is in charge of 1,000 medical personnel.
“There are so many great things women are doing in the military today,” McIntyre said. “Women deploy, they are on the battlefield, they are clinically engaged, they are research oriented and they are academically involved – all those areas and in significant leadership positions.”
McIntyre did not grow up in a military family. It was not until she was already in her first year of medical school when she learned about the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which covered 100 percent of her tuition. “What really appealed to me the most, was the fact in the military, everyone is treated equally,” she said.
Air Force Col. Kimberly A. Slawinski, M.D., vice commander, Air Force Medical Operations Agency, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, was the senior winner of the 2013 award program. Slawinski, a graduate of Uniformed Services University for the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., is an ophthalmologist and flight surgeon. She is a former commander of the 88th Medical Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. When she started her military medical career, there were only a handful of women serving as flight surgeons.
“I was probably the fifth or sixth female flight surgeon in fighters,” Slawinski said. “At first, guys did not want to see female flight surgeons.
However, once you proved that you knew your stuff and were dedicated to keeping them flying, they would seek us out. We developed a trust factor.”
“Today, I just walk out the door of my office and I am surrounded by a staff with half of them women – brilliant, very dedicated, very talented women physicians in the military,” said Slawinski.
The number of women in military medicine has grown. In 2011, active-duty female physicians accounted for 26 percent of the total active-duty Medical Corps, compared to 23 percent in 2006, according to DOD’s Health Manpower Personnel Data System.
The Balancing Act
Maj. Amy Thompson, M.D., was the Army’s junior winner. Prior to her current assignment as a Fellow in Adolescent Medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, she served as the chief of pediatrics and chief of aviation medicine at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Thompson, who grew up in a military family, is a mother of three children under the age of five and her husband is an Army major. She knows all about balance.
“As a dual military career family, the military allows us to keep the balance, to keep the family as a priority and at the same time lead a life of service together,” she said. “The travel, the people we meet, our friends, the challenges we have faced — the adventure the military brings has definitely strengthened us as a family.”
Another junior winner, representing both the Coast Guard and the U.S. Public Health Service for the 2013 award program was Cmdr. Kimberly W. Roman, M.D., who works as the branch chief in the medical branch of the Coast Guard Personnel Services Center in Arlington, Va. Roman was the second resident and first female resident ever to complete a six-month flight surgeon training curriculum while also serving at Naval Hospital Pensacola, Fla. Her personal life shows how men are changing.
“My husband chose to follow me around in my career and has chosen to stay home with the kids,” she said. “We have completely switched roles. I would never be able to do what I do without his support.”
Building Leadership Skills
Still, in any male-dominated industry, one needs to learn leadership skills. For McIntyre, a mother of two children, deployment made the difference. Early on in her career, she gained valuable management lessons serving onboard the USS Enterprise, while deployed with Carrier Airwing 3 from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va.
“You learn to form relationships with people and you figure out how to communicate effectively in order to get things done,” she said. “You learn how to phrase things and talk to people. I don’t know where else you would be able to get those skills.”
Another management technique she recommends is learning to say “no.”
“Learning how to say ‘no’ is one of the biggest skills to learn in your career,” McIntyre said. “People see it as a negative, but it really is not. You have to set limits, otherwise you cannot accomplish anything.”
Slawinski offers additional insight to women looking to move up in rank: “I based my success on perseverance and a desire for continuous improvement. Know your business cold, don’t be afraid to push boundaries to improve it, speak up when appropriate and stand your ground when you’re right.”
Role Models and Mentoring
For Slawinski, having numerous male role models helped her (her father and husband both served as Air Force pilots), but she admits that situation doesn’t work for everyone. The lack of a female physician or military role model in her career is one of the major reasons she volunteers at “Women Soar, You Soar,” a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, summer camp for high school girls.
“Sometimes young women need encouragement from successful women, on a personal level. They need to see you are truly real and interested in them as opposed to images on television, magazines or Facebook,” she said.
For Roman, who also provides military flight surgeon training when needed at a local air station, having mentors made a difference in her advancement and she is doing the same in return.
“I have had a number of mentors, male and female, from two different services who have helped me,” she said. Now, she is paying it forward. “I try to help other young women to see there are multi-facets to what we do. We are not just physicians, we are not just female physicians, but we are female physicians in the military.”
The Air Force junior winner, Lt. Col. Susan O. Moran, M.D., was unable to respond by press time. She currently serves as the commander of the 628th Medical Operations Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina.