“They think of surgery as transplants and plastics and don’t realize that there’s a huge population that has no access to the most basic, lifesaving procedures.”

Sherry is an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine. She runs clinical and research programs in global surgery, gastrointestinal oncology, and surgical robotics. She is the co-developer of the International Humanitarian Aid Surgery course which has now trained more than 200 surgeons to prepare for work in low resource settings.

Why is safe surgery essential for women’s health?

When you look at the number one killer of women across the world it really is childbirth. And there’s just no way you can impact maternal mortality without having access to safe surgery.

And that’s just from an obstetric standpoint – women also get injured in car accidents, women get appendicitis – all multiple other conditions that need surgical care.

11% of the global burden of disease can be classified as surgically-treatable. I can think of no more important issue, in many ways, than safe surgery.

What, you mean that ‘neglected stepchild’ of public health?

You know I’ve actually only ever read that once, in the Paul Farmer and Jim Kim Kim article – I think it just gets quoted by everyone who keeps waiting for the situation to change.

I’m amazed when I speak to people in the public health domain who talk about the MDGs for maternal mortality or the ‘Decade of Road Safety’ but have an absolute disconnect and don’t recognize that safe surgery must be part of these programs. There will be excess maternal mortality as long as there is no access to safe C-sections, and consider the best road safety programs in western nations where people still get in accidents and need surgeons to take care of them.

Do you have any theories on why that is?

A couple! Surgery in the western world has become so commonplace it’s seen as standard care, assumed safe. To the point that people say “I’m just getting a minor op,” and they forget that before the advent of laparoscopic surgery having your gallbladder out was a 5-7 day hospital stay.

They think of surgery as transplants and plastics and don’t realize that there’s a huge population that has no access to the most basic, lifesaving procedures. It’s a profound disconnect in reality.

I also think that surgeons need to learn how to speak public health language. We need better research data. We need to go to their meetings – but it can be tough to break into a club, and it’s not like there’s a huge amount of funding for these topics.

Do I think the ‘neglected stepchild’ will be part of the family in my lifetime? I hope so. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

You run a training course for high-income setting surgeons going to work in a low-resource setting. What’s the most important thing for them to realize?

The most common area of concern is obstetric emergencies. Surgery in low-resource settings is split roughly in thirds – obstetric, orthopaedics, and everything else, so you have to be prepared – but in the U.S. you can’t just say “I’m going to learn to do some ortho today.” To participate, or even scrub in on a case you have to have malpractice insurance that would cover that kind of surgery. Anyone who’s not an obstetrician is terrified to take care of a pregnant woman because of the litigation risk.

It’s also about preparation. Some surgeons go overseas as as part of a comprehensive group bringing everything – physicians, machines, resources – you’re bringing a piece of your own world with you and parking it somewhere. It’s very different if you actually go work in the context the way it is with the resources on hand.

Does surgery around the world keep pace with advances in education and technology?

If your hospital doesn’t have power, running water 100% of the time it’s very difficult to keep up with where technology has moved.

Technology is a double-edged sword. I look at global surgery and I think the goal is someplace in the middle – a happy medium between over-care and over-testing (as I think we do in the U.S.) and availability of resources populations fundamentally need.

Interestingly educational knowledge is easier to disseminate. I participate in a collaborative programme in Zimbabwe on medical education where trainees have not had the opportunity to use advanced technology but they are knowledgeable about the recent advances and often will say “if we had the ability to perform x, this is what I think it would show.”

Is surgery a growing field for women around the world?

In the U.S., absolutely. About 40% of new surgical trainees are women, 50% of medical school graduates. There are still some barriers, areas that are still more commonly within the male domain but it’s rapidly going away – as opposed to when I started training and it was me and 17 guys!

In some places I would say that the issue of women in the profession is still many years behind. I believe there are cultural and biases, both conscious and unconscious– on rounds when I’m working in Africa I’ll ask a doctor if he’s going to encourage a bright young female student on a surgical track and he’ll say “oh no, you know women don’t want to be surgeons.”

But I’ve got a group of female students in Zimbabwe who are so excited to be surgeons. Why? Because they see that it’s possible.