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Women’s Health

Medical Education, Mental Health, Research, Surgery, Women's Health

Stereotype perception linked to psychological health in female surgeons

Stereotype perception linked to psychological health in female surgeons

8116089104_be12619731_oFemale surgeons who believe there’s a stereotype that men are better doctors are more likely to suffer from psychological distress, according to a recent study led by a former Stanford resident.

First author Arghavan Salles, MD, PhD, looked at the correlation between the perception of a stereotype — whether individuals think others believe certain groups are superior physicians — and the overall mental well-being of residents.

The team surveyed 382 residents from 14 medical specialties. To examine views on stereotypes, participants were asked: “Do you think residents in your program expect men or women to generally be better [doctors]?” They were also given standard psychological assessments.

Female surgeons were the only group where stereotype perception was correlated with psychological health. Surgery has traditionally been dominated by men and remains a specialty chosen by about twice as many men as women, leading to the persistence of gender stereotypes.

“As a surgical resident, I was aware of the stereotype that men are better surgeons than women. Although I found the stereotype upsetting, I didn’t think about it too much,” Salles told me. Then, after studying stereotype perception while pursuing a doctorate in education, Salles decided to combine her two specialties to determine whether residents experience stereotype threat; a question that no one had asked before.

The link she found has implications for physician productivity and patient care, Salles said.

“I think it’s important to realize that in the world of medicine, although the ratio of males to females is changing, some of these old stereotypes still have an impact on the practitioners,” said co-senior author Claudia Mueller, MD, PhD.

The belief that others think women aren’t good enough adds an unnecessary stressor to the female residents’ already harried lives, Mueller said. It could also contribute to the high attrition rate of females in surgical disciplines, the study states.

Mueller said the study, which appears in the Journal of the American College of Surgeonsis noteworthy for its rare integration of two quite disparate fields, surgery and psychology.

The authors suggest that simply increasing the number of female surgeons may help dissipate the stereotype. Sharing information about the stereotype may also help, as could investigating any practices that may have a differential effect on men and women, the researchers write.

Salles is now querying residents, faculty members and members of the public to see how prevalent stereotypes about gender-based differences in ability actually are.

Previously: How two women from different worlds are changing the face of surgery, Keeping an even keel: Stanford surgery residents learn to balance work and life and Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery
Photo by Phalinn Ooi

Obesity, Pregnancy, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Maternal obesity increases risk for stillbirth, new Stanford study finds

Maternal obesity increases risk for stillbirth, new Stanford study finds

bassinetWomen who are obese when they become pregnant are more likely than other expectant mothers to have a stillborn baby. But most studies of this relationship have included too few people to give detailed information about which obese women are at greatest risk, or which stages of pregnancy are most likely to be affected.

New Stanford research, led by Suzan Carmichael, PhD, and published online this week in PLOS ONE, changes that. The study used a very large California database of vital records on live births and stillbirths, allowing Carmichael’s team to compare 4,000 stillbirths – in which the baby was born dead after at least 20 weeks of pregnancy – to a control group of 1.1 million live births that followed full-term pregnancies.

With the large data set, the researchers were able to examine the effect of mothers’ race and ethnicity, whether the mothers had previously given birth, and how far along the pregnancies were at the time of the stillbirths. They excluded from analysis the cases in which an obvious fetal factor (such as a chromosomal abnormality) or a known maternal disease (such as diabetes) was probably responsible for the stillbirth.

What emerged is a complicated picture. Overall, greater obesity was linked with greater risk of stillbirth, with a 10-unit increase in body mass index equivalent to a 1.5- to twofold increase in stillbirth risk, a finding echoed by other recent research.

But the increase in risk wasn’t equal across all groups of women, or all stages of pregnancy. For instance, among Hispanic women who had never had a child before, the most extreme level of obesity conferred a five- to sixfold increase in the risk of having a stillbirth between 20 and 23 weeks of pregnancy and about a twofold increase in the risk of stillbirth near the baby’s due date, but was not linked with any change in the risk of having a stillbirth between 24 and 36 weeks’ gestation.

A few themes did emerge, however. Obesity consistently increased the risk for the very earliest stillbirths (between 20 and 23 weeks), regardless of a mother’s ethnicity or whether she had had other children. This is similar to another recent Stanford finding that obesity increases the risk for the earliest premature live births.

In the paper’s discussion section, the authors write:

Obesity and stillbirth are both complex, and many potential factors may contribute to their association. Stillbirth may stem from a variety of adverse conditions, including placental insufficiency, preterm onset of labor or rupture of membranes, infection and cord abnormalities. Obesity could contribute to any of these problems. In addition, obesity may contribute to lower sensitivity with regard to detection of fetal complications, on the part of monitoring tools or maternal ability to detect changes in fetal movement.

The authors hope their findings will help shed light on what causes stillbirth and how, perhaps, some cases might be prevented.

The research was funded by the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University and the Stanford Child Health Research Institute.

Previously: Women who have had a stillbirth are more likely to experience long-term depression, study shows, Losing Jules: Breaking the silence around stillbirth and A call to “break the silence” of stillbirth
Photo by sincerely, brenda sue

Pediatrics, Podcasts, Public Safety, Women's Health

Jimmy Carter: The final campaign

Jimmy Carter:  The final campaign

People Jimmy CarterShortly after leaving the White House in 1980, Jimmy and Rosalynn established the Carter Center. It is from there that their efforts at “waging peace, fighting disease and building hope” – the center’s mission – have been launched.

Along with his global travels to advance democracies around the world, his projects in global health, and his time building for Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter is also a prolific writer. He’s written twenty-eight books. One of his most recent – A Call to Action, Women, Religion, Violence, and Powerdetails the discrimination that women and girls face worldwide. Widely recognized for his Christian beliefs and noted as a Sunday school teacher for more than 70 years – Carter challenges those who use religious texts to deny women equality. In a Call to Action, he writes, “Women and girls have been discriminated against too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.”

For the latest Stanford Medicine, a special on issue on pediatric research and care, I spoke with Carter about girls and women’s equality – an issue that he said would receive his highest priority in his final years. But this summer brought disturbing health news, and a different priority has entered his life: treating metastatic cancer that has spread to his brain.

I worked in the Carter White House. Like many others who served there, I wasn’t prepared for this news – we viewed Jimmy Carter to be indestructible. Even the word “cancer” in regards to Carter seems oxymoronic when you know firsthand his indomitable spirit and boundless energy.

I spoke with him for this 1:2:1 podcast and Q&A before his diagnosis. Later in the summer, I followed up with an email wishing him well and a speedy recovery, and he responded: “Thanks, Paul. I am at ease, and grateful. Jimmy”

And then late last month, just two days before Carter’s 91st birthday, Habitat for Humanity announced that his medical team approved his traveling to Nepal in November to build a home there. (Note from editor: Habitat for Humanity has cancelled the trip due to safety concerns.) Talk about an indomitable spirit and boundless energy.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine tells why a healthy childhood matters and Lobbying Congress on bill to stop violence against women
Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Measuring how military service affects women’s longevity and overall health

Measuring how military service affects women's longevity and overall health

16044566446_77b89745de_zDespite the large numbers of women who serve in the military, there is a dearth of information about their postmenopausal health risks and how military service might impact their longevity. Now comes a study of more than 3,700 female veterans, led by a Stanford-affiliated psychologist, which is the first to examine the postmenopausal health of women veterans who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) and who, given their ages, likely served in World War II or the Korean War.

The study, which appears online in the journal Women’s Health Issues, shows these women have higher all-cause mortality rates than non-veterans, even though their risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hip fractures were found to be the same.

“The findings underscore the salience of previous military service as a critical factor in understanding women’s postmenopausal health and mortality risk, and the value of comparing women veterans to appropriately selected groups of non-veteran women, rather than benchmarking their health against that of the general public. It also reminds us of the importance of including women veterans in research,” said Julie Weitlauf, PhD, the study’s lead author and a clinical associate professor (affiliated) of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine.

The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the most comprehensive research initiatives undertaken on the post-menopausal health of women, involving more than 160,000 women, including nearly 4,000 veterans.

Women can only serve in the military if they are deemed to be in good health, and military service stresses physical activity and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle, thus contributing to the concept of a “healthy soldier effect,” Weitlauf said. That explains why research typically shows that veterans, including women, have better health and lower mortality risk than non-veterans from the general public, she said. While the women in the study, most of whom who were likely military nurses, were probably very fit and healthy during their time of service, this effect may not be sustained throughout their lifetimes.

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Fertility, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research, Sexual Health, Stanford News, Women's Health

IUD is overlooked as excellent birth control for teens, Stanford expert says

IUD is overlooked as excellent birth control for teens, Stanford expert says


When teenagers think of birth control, the pill and condoms are likely the first to come to mind – and indeed the pill is the number one choice of contraceptive among adolescents. But according to Stanford ob/gyn expert Paula Hillard, MD, the IUD is a long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) excellently suited for adolescents. In an editorial published in the October issue of Journal of Adolescent Health, Hillard urges doctors to consider the benefits of LARCs for young women.

The IUD and other LARCs don’t require consistent, correct daily use, so they’re easier to use and less likely to fail. In addition to being extremely effective, IUDs have a high rate of satisfaction among adolescents. Some types of IUDs can also be used therapeutically for problems like heavy bleeding or cramping. LARCs are also cost-effective over time, and the initial investment is no longer a barrier in California due to the Family PACT program, which allows teens to confidentially access birth control at no cost. In addition, the Affordable Care Act mandates that contraceptive methods must be covered in most cases without a co-pay.

So what are the barriers to use? They include misconceptions and lack of information on the part of both teens and providers, as well as provider concerns about the insertion procedure in young women who haven’t given birth.

In an email, Hillard told me:

Many physicians and most adolescents are unaware that modern IUDs provide contraception that is 20 times more effective than birth control pills, the patch or the ring. IUDs are a method of birth control that is very safe, very effective, and “forgettable”.  IUDs are considered to be “top tier” contraceptive methods (along with subdermal implants and sterilization, which is not appropriate for typical adolescents) by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

IUD use has increased from 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent among teens 15-19 years old over the past decade. Still, around 50 percent of obstetrician-gynecologists don’t consider an IUD as a first-line contraceptive for adolescents.

Hillard closes her piece with a discussion of the challenges and importance of counseling for adolescents. Proper counseling includes giving the most effective options priority, and discussing side-effects up front (which improves adherence to contraceptive regimens, including in adults). She writes:

It remains important for us as clinicians to fight for reproductive justice and contraceptive access for all women, with the elimination of barriers including costs. In our counseling, we need to honor principles of informed consent, be aware of power differences between ourselves and our patients, be certain that our counseling is not coercive, and carefully respect our patients’ choices.

Previously: Research supports IUD use for teens, Will more women begin opting for an IUD?, Study shows women may overestimate the effectiveness of common contraceptives and Study: IUDs are a good contraceptive option for teens
Photo by Liz Henry

In the News, Medicine and Society, Nutrition, Parenting, Research, Women's Health

Research elaborates on how moms can protect their daughters’ body image

Research elaborates on how moms can protect their daughters' body image

6945839301_9d61091329_zIt’s been my experience that women struggle with their body image at some point on the way from girlhood to womanhood – this may be brief and exploratory, or get tangled with eating disorders and other destructive behaviors. When I had a period of bulimia in my early 20s, I reflected on (among other things) my mother’s relationship with food and body image, and so some new research from Ben-Gurion University in Israel struck a chord.

Maia Maor, PhD, a sociologist, and Julie Cwikel, PhD, a professor of social work and director of the Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion, invited adult mother-daughter pairs to reflect on various strategies the mothers used to instill resilience about body image in their daughters. The researchers identified five methods commonly used to resist or reject negative and oppressive messages about body image:

  1. Filtering: being cautious and sensitive regarding body image issues 
  2. Transmitting awareness of the dangers of eating disorders, which can cause illness and death
  3. Positive reinforcement, using affirmative language in regard to their daughters’ bodies
  4. Discussion: providing tools for criticism of dominant body-related messages
  5. Positivity: shifting the focus of food and body-related discussions away from weight loss and towards health and taking pleasure in food. 

In a press release from last week, Maor explained that “the focus on protective strategies was intended to achieve two goals: to emphasize the positive in mother-daughter relationships and to identify a repertoire of strategies available to parents and allied health professionals who wish to help their daughters or young women build a stable, positive body image.”

Feelings about food and bodies have long chains of intergenerational transmission. According to the release, “some of the mothers in the study recalled how their own mothers’ negative comments to them about eating too much led them to associate food with guilt and bad feelings. They raised their own daughters by instead talking about the quality of food, importance of food choices and its relationship to developing respect for their own bodies.”

The study appears in the journal Feminism & Psychology.

Previously: Incorporating the family in helping teens overcome eating disorders, Stanford study investigates how to prevent moms from passing on their eating disorders, Promoting healthy eating and a positive body image on college campuses, What a teenager wishes her parents knew about eating disorders, and Social website shown to boost teen girls’ body image
Photo by Thanasus Anastasiou

Cardiovascular Medicine, Chronic Disease, Women's Health

Surviving a betrayal of the heart

Surviving a betrayal of the heart

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s column comes from a patient with spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).

2259323415_ab113de5bc_zThis is a story about a betrayal of the heart — an actual heart. Girl has heart, girl treats heart well, heart gets torn up and girl figures out how to recover from this betrayal by her own body.

Last summer, I participated in my second sprint triathlon. The first part was a half-mile swim in a cold lake. I’d been swimming this distance for months and had done this same triathlon before. Yet, I couldn’t catch my breath, my chest hurt and swimming was appallingly hard for me. But I persevered and finished the biking and running events just fine.

Two weeks later, unnerved by my unsuccessful swim, I steeled myself for a similar swim across a lake in Idaho. Almost halfway through my swim, I started struggling to breathe and felt a band of pain and searing cold across my sternum. I felt weak and cold and couldn’t swim anymore.  Fortunately, my husband was on a paddleboard close by. I called him over, climbed on the board and hung onto his ankles for dear life (vomiting occasionally) as he paddled us to shore.

In retrospect, I had many of the typical symptoms women experience when having heart attack, but it took a while before it dawned on us that I was suffering from one. I don’t fit the profile: I was 53, nearly vegetarian, slim, fit with a mild addiction to kale smoothies. However, I had just gone through menopause and was on a low dose of HRT.

Fortunately, the ER doctor in Idaho did an EKG and figured out I was having a heart attack. The next day, an angiogram found a tear in the innermost wall of my coronary artery called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). This tear causes blood to flow between the layers of the arterial wall, blocking blood flow and causing a heart attack. SCADs are rare, yet, nearly 80-90 percent of SCAD patients are women in their early 40s with no additional risk factors.

It’s not yet known what causes SCADs. So, I am left with a lot of unanswered questions, and I’ve had to slowly rebuild trust in my own body and abilities, knowing my condition is rare and poorly understood.

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Mental Health, Parenting, Pediatrics, Pregnancy, Public Health, Research, Women's Health

Sleep-deprivation and stress among factors contributing to smoking relapse after childbirth

Sleep-deprivation and stress among factors contributing to smoking relapse after childbirth

2473235415_0584b78298_zSmoking can make it more difficult to get pregnant and it can contribute to complications after conception and endanger the health of babies as they grow. For these reasons, many women quit smoking when they are trying to conceive and during pregnancy. But an estimated 40 percent of women in the United States who kick the nicotine habit for the health of their unborn child relapse within six months after delivery.

New research published in the journal Addiction suggests that the stress of becoming a parent could be a significant factor in why some moms resume smoking after childbirth. In the study, British researchers interviewed 1,000 mothers about factors that influenced their relapse or contributed to them staying smoke-free. Lead researcher Caitlin Notley, PhD, discussed the findings in a PsychCentral article:

One of the most striking things that we found is that women’s beliefs about smoking are a major barrier to remaining smoke-free. Many felt that smoking after the birth of their child was acceptable provided they protected their babies from secondhand smoke.

Their focus is, admirably, on the health of the baby, but they often do not think about the long-term health consequences for themselves as mothers.

We also found that women who saw smoking as a way of coping with stress were more likely to relapse. And that feeling low, lonely, tired, and coping with things like persistent crying were also triggers. Women reported that cravings for nicotine, which had lessened or stopped during pregnancy, returned.

The majority of women who had successfully remained smoke free said that the support of their partner was a strong factor. Partners who gave up smoking, or altered their own smoking behaviors, were a particularly good influence. And those who helped ease the stress of childcare were also praised by women who had resisted the urge to light up

In addition to receiving help from their partners, moms said support from health professionals was another positive contributor to them being able to resist urges to smoke and manage stress.

Previously: Study shows mothers receiving fertility treatments may have an elevated risk of depression, Examining how fathers’ postpartum depression affects toddlers, A telephone lifeline for moms with postpartum depression, What other cultures can teach us about managing postpartum sleep deprivation and Is postpartum depression more of an urban problem?
Photo by Samantha Webber

Genetics, In the News, Pregnancy, Research, Science, Women's Health

Maternal-fetal “chimera” cells: What do they actually do?

Maternal-fetal "chimera" cells: What do they actually do?

1292733380_3e6815a6d1_zAfter a woman is pregnant, fetal cells linger in her body long after her baby is brought out into the world. They cross the placenta and congregate in her thyroid, breasts, brain, scars… and elsewhere. The phenomenon is called “fetal microchimerism,” a reference to the hybrid monster of Greek mythology that strikes me as both whimsical and menacing.

But what do these cells do? An entertaining and informative National Geographic blog post highlights a recent review study published in BioEssays that seeks to answer this question. The evidence we have so far is contradictory and messy, not yielding much in the way of patterns: Sometimes cells collect more in diseased tissues, other times in healthy ones. But when viewed through an evolutionary lens, things start to make sense, argue the paper’s authors. These cells allow a baby to inadvertently influence her mother’s body in her own interest, which is sometimes – but not always – in the mother’s interest, too.

Writer Ed Yong explains:

Some of those changes, like faster healing, benefit the mother too. Others may not. For example, foetal cells could stimulate the breast to make more milk, either by releasing certain chemical signals or by transforming into glandular cells themselves. That’s good for the baby but perhaps not for the mother, given that milk takes a lot of energy to make—mothers literally dissolve their own bodies to create it. And if the foetal cells start dividing too rapidly in the breast, they might increase the risk of cancer.

Similarly, the thyroid gland produces hormones that control body temperature. If foetal cells integrate there and start dividing, they could ramp up a mother’s body heat, to a degree that benefits her baby but also drains valuable energy. And again, if they divide uncontrollably, they might increase the risk of cancer. Indeed, thyroid cancer is one of the only types that’s more common in women than men, but is not a reproductive organ like the ovaries or breasts.

Such influences would have developed gradually over hundreds of millions of years in a subtle evolutionary contest between mother and fetus – it is in the mother’s interest for the fetus to do well, but not to monopolize all her resources, so it’s not unlikely that mothers evolved counter-measures. The paper authors don’t have any conclusions yet, but their point is that within this evolutionary framework, it makes sense that fetal cells both help and harm the mother.

Previous research on microchimerism has only asked about such cells’ presence, not their function. The paper’s authors hope to organize a workshop to test some of the hypotheses they proposed, which means gathering microchimeric fetal cells and sequencing their genes, then working out which of the mother’s genes they are activating and whether these correlate with any traits like milk production or temperature. The possibilities for further research are immense:

And then, there’s the matter of cells that travel in the other direction—from the mother to the foetus. What do they do in their new homes? These paths can get even more complicated. It’s possible that the cells from one foetus can travel into its mother, hide out, and then into a sibling during a later pregnancy. “At one point, we started trying to draw family trees, and trying to work out where all the microchimerc cells could be going,” says [co-author Athena Aktipis, PhD]. “It got really messy.”

Previously: How a child’s cells may affect a mother’s long term health
Related: The yin-yang factor
Photo by Simone Tagliaferri

In the News, Parenting, Patient Care, Pregnancy, Public Health, Women's Health

Low-tech yet essential: Why parents are vital members of care teams for premature babies

Low-tech yet essential: Why parents are vital members of care teams for premature babies

3297657033_081d4f3630_zThanks to recent advances in medicine, technology and research, most premature babies born in the United States face better odds of surviving than ever before. Yet, the number of premature births in the U.S. remains relatively high, with a rate that’s on par with that of Somalia, Thailand and Turkey.

For the parents of a premature baby, an early birth can transform what was supposed to be a happy event into a stressful one, says Henry Lee, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. In a recent U.S. News & World Report article penned by Lee, he discusses why it’s important for parents, and beneficial for the baby, when parents are active members of the child’s medical team:

Giving birth to a preemie, especially when it’s unexpected, leaves many parents feeling unprepared and helpless. But we make it clear very early. “You, the parent, are a critical part of our medical team.” That’s right. Even in the heart of Silicon Valley where we’re located, two of our biggest assets are decidedly low-tech workers: the baby’s mom and dad.

Including parents in the care of preemies is a standard that was unheard of in the early days of neonatology, but is now used in leading NICUs for one critical reason: It works.

Here’s an example of how parents contribute. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin care, also known as kangaroo care, can have beneficial effects on preterm neonates, including improved temperature and heart rate stability. In many NICUs, you will see babies – clad only in a diaper and covered by a blanket – placed prone position on the chest of either the mother or the father. This intimate method of care provides a preterm baby a natural environment for rest, growth and healing.

No matter when a baby is born, term or preterm, families know their children best. A parent’s contribution is critical to treating these most vulnerable of newborns.

Previously: How Stanford researchers are working to understand the complexities of preterm birthNew research center aims to understand premature birth and A look at the world’s smallest preterm babies
Photo by Sarah Hopkins

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