National Women's Day: An Interview with Dr. Bergmark / by sam keif

National Women's Day: An Interview with Dr. Bergmark

By: Margarita Baxter


In honor of the Women’s History Month, we will be featuring stories of amazing women who are accomplished professionals in fields of healthcare, biotech, and tech. 


Please meet our first guest — Dr. Regan Bergmark. She's an Otolaryngologist and currently is the Gliklich Healthcare Innovation Scholar at Harvard Medical school.

The Gaisce Group had a pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bergmark.

The Gaisce Group (TGG) : What is your background (work, education, interests)? 

Dr. Bergmark (DRB): I am a sinus and skull base surgeon and also do research on healthcare outcomes and health equity.  Outcomes measurement is a large and growing field in health care, as technology has allowed us to gather and analyze massive amounts of health information. My work centers on determining which outcomes we should really be tracking for patients, and using that data to identify groups of patients who are at risk for worse outcomes. There are many factors that influence how and why people become sick - such as poverty, race and ethnicity, geography - which we term the "social determinants of health." In the US, for example, people who are poor or who self-identify with a racial or ethnic minority groups have worse health.  To be able to improve the health of these groups, we need to be measuring our outcomes in the healthcare system, and looking at the results to say, “which groups are doing worse, why are these patients doing worse, and what can we do to fix that?”


TGG: What is your biggest professional accomplishment?  

DRB: Currently, I am working on a large collaboration on health outcomes with Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School and the International Consortium for Health Outcomes Measurement to try to define a common set of outcomes measures for common diseases.  We are still testing those measure sets and refining them, but hope that the data can be used to understand healthcare outcomes internationally.


TGG: What is your biggest accomplishment outside of work?

DRB: I had three children during seven years of surgical training. 


TGG: How do you balance work and life responsibilities?

DRB: I think you need to be very clear about your priorities, make changes when your schedule is tilted in the wrong direction, and to manage your time well.  I really love being a mother and a wife, and I also love being a surgeon-scientist; I think people who do not love both family and work roles struggle more to manage them both. Both my husband and I are physicians, and we think it is good that our kids understand that we go to work every day to help people who are sick and in need. In terms of time management, I do not work at home when my kids are awake and try to limit the work I bring home. I also follow the advice of more senior successful women to stay very focused at work - not only in terms of making each hour count, but also in terms of turning down or deferring opportunities that seem to distract from my main goals. Time is a precious resource.  My last thought it that your commitment to family is essential.  People who do not spend time with their families often do not see failure right away, but over years.  They look back and lost their opportunity to be the parent or spouse they wanted to be. You should never regret time spent with family. 


TGG: What did you want to be when you grew up and why? 

DRB: I always wanted to be a scientist. My mother is also a physician and had a laboratory when I was growing up. She is amazing, and loved medicine and science, and it was infectious. Part of me imagined having a lab, and part imagined doing environmental science. Growing up in Minneapolis, I volunteered with the immigrant and refugee community when I was in high school, and that experience drew me to large issues of social justice and health equity, and I wound up where I am today.


TGG: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in your field?

DRB: Wow that is a big question and one that we are actively studying.  Some of the lack of leadership is historical - that is, women were not entering surgical fields in significant numbers a generation ago, and so the current leadership is predominantly male.  That is not the whole story.  We recently looked at all academic surgeons in the United States and found that even when we accounted for lots of factors that influence promotion, such as age, years in practice, NIH funding, publications, etc, women were still less likely than men to have full professor status.  Why? There certainly could be factors we were unable to study, such as medical society leadership or number of talks people had given. Implicit bias definitely has a role in the status of women in academic surgery - the promotion process is partly subjective, and even grants and papers may be less highly reviewed with women’s names on them.  When I had my first child I remember a male colleague saying, “oh yeah, you’re a mom now, you’re not going to do any research,” saying he thought I was dropping out of a successful academic track when I had never voiced anything to support that assertion. I realized I needed to tell people my plans to continue in academic surgery.  Women need to push to be in leadership positions by telling people they are interested, and by asking to be in leadership positions. Women are also less likely to negotiate aggressively, and need to therefore push themselves to negotiate, to ask, to keep pushing themselves forward.  Transparency and objectivity in the hiring and promotions process, and objectively distributing resources (financial and otherwise) is also needed.

TGG: Name one woman that inspires you. Why her?

DRB: I can’t choose just one.  I have already spoken about my mother, Dorothy Whitmer, MD, so I will talk about two other amazing women:

Ambassador Sally Cowal is now the head of global health at the American Cancer Society, but I spent a one year fellowship with her between college and medical school when she was a Senior Vice President at Population Services International, working primarily on safe water international public health programs.  Ambassador Cowal had decades of experience in the Foreign Service, at the United Nations as a founder of UNAIDS, and in the nonprofit arena.  She embodied many amazing leadership qualities including a gutsiness and decisiveness that allowed her to be effective and bold. 

Dr. Stacey Gray, the other women I have to talk about, is also a sinus and skull base surgeon at Harvard and has been a primary mentor to me for nearly a decade.  She is a phenomenal surgeon and physician, taking care of her patients the way I hope to always care for mine, and also is an International expert in sinus disease. On top of it, she is an amazing mother and has no qualms being dedicated to her family.  


TGG: What are the biggest challenges facing girls and women today?

DRB: While we have discussed women in leadership roles in academic surgery, the truth is that for most women in the world - even in 2018 - the differences in opportunity for girls versus boys and women vs men are atrocious. Violence against women ranging from harassment to human trafficking, a lack of opportunity to go to school, work, or determine one’s future and family life are some of the many massive challenges facing women around the world. When I was working on safe water globally, one of the most pressing issues was that girls would drop out of school to walk several miles to collect water in buckets in low income countries without good access to water. The good news is that our actions, not our gender, determine whether we can effectively help with these issues. When we think about massive social problems - poverty, violence, discrimination, etc - it is easy to believe making a difference is impossible.  It is not.  We should each try to do something to impact these larger forces shaping the human experience. Because if not us, then who?