Women of the HSMA: Ms Susan Alexander

Q&A - 7TH MARCH 2022

Ms Susan Alexander of Fortius Clinic on female role models, valuable advice and the main challenges facing women in healthcare today

To mark International Women’s Day 2022, we are celebrating the women of the HSMA. Each day we will be publishing a Q&A with one of the remarkable women who make up our vibrant community of healthcare specialists. Meet Ms Susan Alexander, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Fortius Clinic.

Tell us about your role at the clinic.
I specialise in all aspects of shoulder problems, including shoulder dislocations, rotator cuff tears, acromioclavicular joint injuries, fractures of the collarbone and humerus, and shoulder joint arthritis. I consider myself very fortunate to work at Fortius Clinic, a leading sports and orthopaedic clinic, and King Edward VII’s Hospital, an outstanding inpatient facility with a long history of clinical excellence, also in Marylebone.

Who are the women who have inspired you the most?
I think the most remarkable leader of our time is Her Majesty The Queen. To me, she epitomises strength and resilience. Her resolve to serve our country with steadfast dedication for 70 years is unparalleled, and her unwavering ability to stay calm and gracious under stress is a lesson for us all. Another woman I admire is Michelle Obama. After reading her autobiography, Becoming, and watching some of her interviews, she comes across as intelligent and passionate; someone who genuinely cares about the future of young girls across the globe. Within my speciality, Dame Claire Marx has been an outstanding role model. She was the first female president of the British Orthopaedic Association, the first female president of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, and president of the General Medical Council. She is held in high regard and with great affection by her colleagues.

Do you have any advice for other women looking to follow a career in healthcare?
Being a surgeon is a great job. To be able to offer hope and reassurance to patients who are at their most vulnerable is an incredible privilege. It is very satisfying indeed to get people back to doing activities they love.

I work with many women (and men) in different roles within the clinic and surgical setting. Teamwork is key in my job and every role is equally important. If you are considering a career in healthcare, spend a bit of time finding out about the different types of jobs available. Try to get some work experience, or simply chat to someone who is already doing that job and get as much information as possible. Remember to ask about the worst bits of the job as well as the best bits so that you get a balanced view before committing yourself to a course. Then be clear about your goal and go for it.

As a woman, what are the biggest challenges you have faced along the way?
When I started training in orthopaedics, only 3% of orthopaedic surgeons were women. I am of Indian origin and there were very few women of colour who chose a career in surgery in the 1990s. Each stage of my career has presented unique challenges and there were several hoops that I had to jump through. Initially, it was difficult to get accepted onto a training programme, but I did everything I could to grasp that opportunity, and I was persistent. Nowadays, as a mother of twin daughters aged 10, the main challenge is time management. Juggling the roles between my clinical job, creating content for my anatomy education company, The Funky Professor, and being a mum, requires careful planning!

While the landscape has improved considerably, there is still an unconscious bias in how women are treated in a male-dominated field. For example, if a man asks enquiring questions at a board meeting, he is valued as being proactive and insightful, but as a woman, you can be regarded as problematic or difficult to work with. That being said, there are many instances where people are very supportive, and it is important not to assume negative bias and be unnecessarily confrontational. Don’t create problems that don’t exist.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is #BreakTheBias. What does this mean to you?
Whichever culture we are born into or raised in, there are established rules that govern that society. Traditions are often passed down several generations and are accepted as ‘the way things are done’. These pre-ordained systems often restrict the individual from making independent choices about their life and career. As a first-generation Indian immigrant to the UK in the 1970s, the odds of becoming a female orthopaedic surgeon with a private practice at King Edward VII’s Hospital were clearly stacked against me. But I knew that I had the capability to do the job as well as anyone else and I had enough impertinence to challenge preconceptions, stand up for myself and say: “Why shouldn’t it be me?” So for me, ‘break the bias’ means to know your inherent skills, follow your heart and not be constrained by society judging you on your gender, skin colour, religion or sexual preference. Question the rules and live your best life.