Debunking myths about female ‘orthopods’ – New partnership at CHH benefiting orthopedic patients

Local Life August 2, 2013 0 Comments

Dr. Alyssa Schaffer, who is now based at Chestnut Hill Hospital, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University Medical School. She has specialties in hand surgery, microsurgery and general orthopedic surgery.

by Steve Ahern

With the over-65 population projected to more than double over the next 40 years and with the American obsession with sports not likely to diminish, comes the increased prevalence of orthopedic problems and sports-related injuries.

Chestnut Hill residents in need of orthopedic care are in luck, however. The partnership Temple University Hospital (TUH) forged recently with Chestnut Hill Hospital (CHH) has eased the process for people in the area suffering from orthopedic problems. Dr. Alyssa Schaffer, one of the four practicing Temple University orthopedic surgeons working at the satellite office, noted that feedback from referring and primary-care physicians and the close proximity between CHH and TUH were among the factors contributing to the opening of the office in January, 2013, in the hospital at 8815 Germantown Ave., suite 20.

Dr. Schaffer, 35, who lives in the Art Museum area, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University Medical School who has specialties in hand surgery, microsurgery and general orthopedic surgery.

“Market share data reflected that a larger than average percentage of patients from the CHH service area (a half-mile radius from the hospital) were going elsewhere for their orthopedic care,” Schaffer said. “We looked at this as an opportunity to capitalize on that trend and offer Chestnut Hill residents the convenience of high quality orthopedic care close to home. In addition, we figured that we could bring the reputation of Temple Sports Medicine to CHH, provide quality care with good outcomes and expand our other services (joint replacement, hand/upper extremity) to the community. We viewed this as an opportunity to supplement and complement the established group at CHH.”

Since January, hundreds of patients have been seen and over 125 surgical procedures have been performed, among them hip and knee replacements, arthroscopies, carpal tunnel operations, trigger-finger releases and Achilles tendon repairs. The satellite office also performs joint replacements, treatment of meniscal and ACL tears, tennis elbow, fractures, arthritis and infections. TUH is aligned with the rehabilitation services offered at CHH.

For the last three years, Schaffer has worked as an attending orthopedic surgeon (“orthopod,” as she refers to herself) and assistant professor at TUH, where she earned her medical degree in 2003 and completed her residency in orthopedic surgery in 2009, one of only a comparative handful of women to do so.

While women account for 34.3 percent of practicing physicians today (a 44.7% increase since 1980, according to the American Medical Association), the growth has been observed primarily in the specialties of internal medicine, pediatrics, family medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, psychiatry and anesthesiology, among others. Just 4.3 percent of board certified “orthopods” are women, according to data citied in an article on orthopedic medicine in the Huffington Post.

Part of the reason for the low percentage has to do with the myths that have been circulating in the field for decades, among them that orthopedic surgeons had to be strong to “saw through bones” and preferably, former athletes, so they could “relate to the musculoskeletal system,” according to Mary O’Connor, an orthopedic surgeon and chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.

Schaffer, who was the only female in her orthopedic surgery residency until her fifth year, said that myths of the need for brawn and the alleged benefits of being a former athlete were present when she entered medical school and that they persist today.

“The idea was that you needed to be a 6’5” linebacker to be an orthopod,” Schaffer said. “One of the most common questions from some people was ‘Do you really think you are going to be able to go the emergency room and reduce somebody’s hip? Do you think you’re going to be strong enough to do that?’”

Dr. Schaffer may not be imposing in stature, but she is a second-degree black belt who considers herself strong enough to reposition heavy bodies, hold aloft heavy limbs for protracted periods and move furniture around her house. She insists that “orthopods” do not need “superhuman strength” to succeed in the field. “Any woman who wants to can do it. It’s more about finesse and having the patient sedated enough.”

None of the myths at any point deterred Schaffer. From the time she entered medical school, she wanted to specialize in orthopedics, though she is unsure how that notion entered her mind, beyond the idea as a child that the doctor was someone who fixes bones and puts casts on. “I always liked that idea,” Schaffer said.

The new-to-Chestnut Hill surgeon grew up in Clarks Summit, PA, a small town northwest of Scranton. Her father, an electrician for GE for 30 years, and her mother, a recently retired special-education teacher, instilled early on in Schaffer a work ethic and the confidence to achieve anything in life. Schaffer’s grandfather, who with her father built the home she grew up in, introduced to the very bright young lady his skills of woodworking. Together, they built toys from wood using drill presses, hammer and nails, a foreshadowing in some way of her work to come as an orthopedic surgeon.

She also enjoys treating complex trauma cases and nerve injury cases as well as elbow fractures. “Those are challenging to put back together,” she said. “It’s satisfying to take a complex fracture and piece it back together.”

Beyond continuing to serve as a mentor for female medical students interested in orthopedics (she mentors two now), learning Spanish and traveling more between the long hours she works as a surgeon, marrying and perhaps having children one day, Schaffer would like to volunteer once again for Health Volunteers Overseas, an organization devoted to improving health care in developing countries, for whom she served a month in Uganda, East Africa, training local health care providers in 2011.

To schedule an appointment with Temple Orthopedics & Sports Medicine at Chestnut Hill Hospital, call 215-248-8947.

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