After working for 18 years in the Wood River Valley, Dr. Charlotte Alexander says she’s glad she became a hand surgeon rather than pursuing a career in her other field of interest—music.
Aside from having a more financially secure profession, Alexander said she feels she has been able to serve her patients, especially women, with an ability to communicate that is often lacking in her male counterparts.
Of the eight general and orthopedic surgeons listed in the Wood River Valley Yellow Pages, Alexander is the only woman. Nationwide, that ratio is even more lopsided. Though women make up about one-third of the population of doctors in the United States, they comprise only about 4.3 percent of certified orthopedic surgeons, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
That number appears to be on the rise—according to the academy, in 2010, 14 percent of orthopedic residents were women, up from 8 percent in 2000.
Various people studying the subject have attributed the slow emergence of women in the field to an inaccurate perception that the specialty requires strength and to a scarcity of female role models.
“While the need for physical strength may have played a role decades ago, advances in modern-day medical equipment have shifted the primary requisites from brute strength to manual dexterity, mechanical ability and an aptitude in three-dimensional visualization,” wrote Dr. Mary O’Conner, chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic, in a blog for The Huffington Post in August 2012.
When Alexander, 61, began her residency, the numbers were even worse. She said that during her medical school interviews, she was asked whether she planned to get married and to have children.
However, she said, she didn’t see herself as a pioneer for women’s rights.
“It was odd being a woman in orthopedics,” she said, “but I just didn’t put that into the equation—I just liked what I was doing.”
She said she chose her field partly because she was turned off by the big egos of many general and cardiothoracic surgeons whom she encountered. During her time in medical school and her residency, she said, the “orthopods” just seemed like more normal people.
She said she also prefers not having to deal with life-and-death issues. In orthopedics, she said, the outcomes are usually good.
“You’re not dealing with things that can’t be fixed,” she said. “Orthopedists like to fix things.”
Alexander said she became interested in hand surgery because she was fascinated by the intricacy of the anatomy.
“You have to not be in a hurry,” she said. “You have to like tedious work. But I’m just fascinated by that sort of thing.”
However, she said, the longer she has practiced, the less she turns to surgery as a solution.
“As you get more experienced in outcomes, you start to realize that you’re not going to be able to make some things better with the things that you learned in your residency,” she said. “You learn that certain kinds of patients do better with conservative management.”
Alexander also said that she makes it a point to discuss with her patients all of the potential causes of their problems.
“Your hand is your connection to life and to your experiences. I feel that I spend more time dealing with the whole patient than do most orthopedic surgeons.”
She said she thinks her approach is beneficial to both male and female patients, but that her willingness to talk is most appreciated by the women.
“That’s what women do!” she said.
Alexander shares her office with her husband, Dr. Herb Alexander, an orthopedist who specializes in sports medicine and fractures.
The two met while they were both in residency at the Oakland Naval Hospital, he as a senior resident, she in her first year. She said their close relationship allows them to consult with one another frequently and to refer patients.
“It’s great most of the time,” she said, though she adds with a laugh, “There are times when we could be called the Bickersons!”
Alexander hasn’t abandoned her interest in music. She still sings regularly with the Caritas Chorale, and said she prefers it as a hobby.
“I don’t think I would have enjoyed music so much if I had to do it to make a living,” she said.
That’s probably a good thing for Wood River Valley residents as well, who have an attentive and adept local specialist to turn to when their manual connection to life isn’t what it used to be.