Widening Women’s Paths to Orthopedic Surgery

It’s a historically male-dominated medical specialty, but UConn Health orthopedic surgeon Katherine Coyner is working to change the course of that history. ()

Orthopedic surgery is a historically male-dominated medical specialty. But Dr. Katherine Coyner, an orthopedic surgeon at UConn Health, is leading an effort to change the course of that history.

Nearly 120 female students from high schools throughout Connecticut gathered on Saturday, Feb. 22, for a quarterly workshop Coyner holds to introduce girls and young women to the medical discipline she’s thrived in.

“I wanted to take part in the program because I wanted to get a glimpse of women in medicine, and hope that it helps me choose a specific field I want to go into, because I know I definitely want to do the medical field,” says Brooke Bokon, a sophomore at the Cheshire Academy.

And that’s one of the reasons Coyner founded the program Inspiring Women in Engineering and Medicine (IWEM).

“If we expose them early, then at least they’re making an educated decision that, yes, this is for them, or no, it’s not, versus never being exposed to it so therefore not choosing it,” Coyner says.

Six students and an instructor, two students with drills working on bone model repair
High school students use plates and screws to repair a simulated broken bone at the Inspiring Women in Engineering and Medicine workshop at UConn Health Feb. 22. (Photo by Ethan Giorgetti)

Among U.S. orthopedic surgeons, about 14% of residents and 7% of attendings are women.

“I’ve learned a lot about the process, about college and medical school,” says Taylor Maher, a sophomore at Morgan High School in Clinton. “I wanted to take part in this program because I’m trying to decide whether I want to go into orthopedics.”

When Coyner held the first IWEM workshop at UConn Health in May 2018, 247 girls applied. She was able to take 73. She holds the hands-on workshops four times a year to give interested students multiple chances to get in before they graduate. For the February 2020 workshop, 116 attended out of an applicant pool of 349.

“What I’m getting out of this is experience in the medicine field,” says Middletown High School junior Nicole Forno, who’s been interested in engineering since elementary school. “If I was going to be a bio-engineer, I would want to know what type of stuff to be looking for and what other type of stuff people would be doing in hospitals, or something I could help getting involved in.”

The students tried their hand at three different types of procedures: suturing, or closing an incision; arthroscopic knee surgery; and using screws and plates to repair a broken bone.

“It was really cool doing the hands-on activities,” says Kayla Jaman, a senior at the Global Communication Academy in Hartford. “Fixing the bones was really fun.”

Kayla represents a convergence of mentoring efforts at UConn Health designed to expose students to career paths they otherwise might not have considered because of historic underrepresentation. She’s participated in several Health Career Opportunity Programs – currently the Senior Doctors Academy, after starting with the Great Explorations Doctors Academy in middle school.

“Being in the Health Career Opportunity Programs has really helped open my eyes to other aspects of the medical field and has confirmed that I want to go into medicine,” she says.

High school students with Dr. Katherine Coyner, who holds a repaired bone model.
Dr. Katherine Coyner shows a repaired bone model with five of the 116 high school students who took part in the February 2020 Inspiring Women in Engineering and Medicine workshop at UConn Health. Thomaston High School senior Cedreya Lanier, second from right, says, “I want to be a doctor and I needed the experience to reassure myself that this is really what I want to do.” (Photo by Carolyn Pennington)

Of the participants in this most recent IWEM workshop, 18 are seniors in Health Career Opportunity Programs, and a total of 50, or 43%, identified as being part of a racial minority.

“I’ve learned so much from this – the hands-on experience – I would never have experienced that until medical school, so it’s great,” says Cedreya Lanier, a senior at Thomaston High School.

Coyner assembles a diverse group of volunteers to staff her workshops, including undergraduates, medical students, and residents, who can share their perspectives from different points in their education and training.

“The high school students will have a college student volunteer and ask her, ‘What did you do in college,’ and that college student, who wants to get into medical school, can pull aside the first-year medical student,” Coyner says. “And then you have the fourth-year medical student, who’s getting ready to have Match Day here next month, sharing with the second-years on how to choose their rotations. I believe I’m also creating this other behind-the-scenes network of this sort of women empowerment in regards to helping people through this medical career.”

The next IWEM workshop is scheduled for May 30. Registration information will be available at Coyner’s website.

“It’s really inspiring to see these young girls catch on so quickly, it makes me realize that my goal to drive growth in the female population in the medical field is promising,” Coyner says.