Anne Mosenthal chair of the Department of Surgery at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School


Anne Mosenthal is the chair of the Department of Surgery at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

John Emerson

Anne Mosenthal, who was recently named the chair of the Department of Surgery at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, is one of just five women heading up academic surgery at 141 medical schools nationwide. With her appointment and those of other women emerging as leaders in this specialty, the face of surgery—and its practice—is likely to change.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: Why is surgery the last male stronghold in the medical-academic world? 
Anne Mosenthal:
Surgery has been a very hierarchical specialty, with a long tradition of an almost military approach to training and practice. What you see is a vestige of this, where traditionally masculine qualities are still highly valued. Yet today, 50 percent of medical students and 30 to 40 percent of surgical residents are women. Women leaders in surgery are in the pipeline.

RM: Why has this imbalance endured for so long?
AM: There are several factors, including the macho culture and lack of women role models. Some is because of bias, mostly unconscious, in my opinion. Surgical residency is a commitment to a long and arduous training period. Some surgical residencies—including neurosurgery, orthopedics, and plastic surgery—last five to seven years, meaning women don’t start their careers until their 30s. Also, many women don’t want to delay having children. 

RM: How did you become a leader?
AM: It was a lot of hard work, but I had wonderful mentors and role models, among them Benjamin Rush, founding chair of this department, who was ahead of his time in recruiting women and minorities. When I saw an opportunity to grow, I was willing to take on new challenges, even if the path was uncertain.

I didn’t set out to become a chair. I wanted to be a trauma, critical-care surgeon and take care of really sick and severely injured patients and ask crucial research questions. But early in my career, I felt unprepared to handle death and dying, end-of-life care, and family bereavement. Little information was available. In 2000, I partnered with nurse and ethicist Patricia Murphy, clinical associate professor in the department, to develop a program in palliative care for trauma and critically ill patients. Finding something that I was so passionate about propelled me into local and national leadership positions. I discovered that I liked building new programs to change the way we teach, think about science, and deliver care. In 2011, I was nominated to be a fellow at the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program—an amazing experience—by dean Robert Johnson, who also asked me to chair the medical school’s strategic planning process. Both experiences fostered my interest in leadership and what makes academic institutions successful.

RM: How do you intend to promote women as surgeons and alter the culture?
AM: I hope to lead by example. I started a chapter of the Association of Women Surgeons to encourage networking and support women into leadership positions. I advise women to take every opportunity: you don’t know where it could lead. My style is more participatory and inclusive. I don’t lead from the top down, the traditional male leadership style. Teamwork is important. I hope to mentor women and men to develop as surgeons.

RM: Why will the number of female surgeons have an impact on surgical practices?
AM: Studies have shown that women interact differently with patients than men do. They listen more, and patients are more satisfied. Women bring different communication skills, at a time when communication will become more important. Surgery is an intimate relationship between surgeon and patient; patients put complete trust in their surgeons. But sometimes surgeons make patients sicker, in cases of high-risk surgery. Surgeons need to reflect on their role in this, which requires self-awareness and putting ego aside. The critical mass of women who have gone through medical school in the last 15 years has already changed medicine for the better. Surgery will follow suit.