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West Moreton surgeon cutting a path for others to follow

A trailblazer among surgeons at Ipswich Hospital is working to give rising female doctors and medical hopefuls greater visibility of female mentors in the operating theatre.

Dr Susan Bell became the first female general surgeon to join Ipswich Hospital on a permanent basis when she joined West Moreton Health in 2017.

She is among a strong line-up of female health carers and leaders to inspire others during Queensland Women’s Week and International Women’s Day this month.

Dr Bell said she was a proud mentor to trainee doctors, and each year attends The University of Queensland’s Supporting Women In Medicine group events to meet with medical students, answer their questions, and share insights from her experience.

“I think having more female surgeons is important for two reasons,” Dr Bell said.

“It gives female trainees some assurance that they are striving for something that is possible, and it also helps shift some assumptions about what a surgeon looks like.

“People don’t seem to anticipate that their GP will look a certain way, and diversity is both expected and accepted. There are still some prevailing assumptions among people that their surgeon will be a man.”

Royal Australasian College of Surgeons figures from 2018 showed about one in eight surgeons in Australia and New Zealand were female, although the percentage of females among newly qualified surgeons was much higher – about one in four.

At West Moreton Health, more than 40 per cent of doctors are women, while Dr Bell is the only female general surgeon.

Other female surgical specialists at Ipswich Hospital include gynaecologists and obstetricians.

 “Gender does not decide whether someone has the skill and ability to be a surgeon,” she said.

“Women and men are equally able.

“I think that the key difference is that, if a woman is to start a family, it often coincides with the need to pursue training and career opportunities.

 “It is important, however, for people to see that it is possible, and for them to see that changes are underway to better support that choice. It is fantastic to start to see the diversity of our communities represented in our surgical workforce.”

Dr Bell, who is a senior lecturer at The University of Queensland and a mother of two, began surgical training in 2009.

It was not until she reached her subspecialty Fellowship training in 2015 that she got to work and learn beside another female surgeon. 

She said she was drawn to surgery by her preference for procedural, detail-orientated work.

“Surgery has an immediate impact,” she said.

“When someone comes in very unwell, your job as a surgeon is to physically do something to make them better. I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to have that positive impact, and in a relatively short timeframe.”

A member of BreastSurgANZ and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS), Dr Bell is a general surgeon at Ipswich Hospital who specialises in breast and endocrine surgery and has also recently commenced private practice in the region.

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