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Weber with a skeleton on a recent trip to Antarctica.

LAS VEGAS — Kristy Weber, MD, has not been one to shy away from obstacles during her career in orthopedic surgery. And now she is stepping up to a new challenge: becoming the first female president of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).

“This is not about me,” Weber said of her impending role as president. “There are plenty of qualified women out there and I’m glad to represent all of them.”

However, “it’s been 87 years and it’s about time a woman serves as president and we get a little gender diversity in the role,” she told Medscape Medical News in a lengthy conversation about her upcoming 1-year term as president.

It is not a role she would have imagined for herself when she started out. The road to orthopedic surgery was a circuitous one for the chief of orthopedic oncology in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

After graduating high school in St. Louis, she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

“My life’s dream was to be a vet,” explained Weber. “I had read all the James Herriot books — especially All Creatures Great and Small — and worked at vet clinics and animal rescue centers.”

Although she was accepted to the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, she was encouraged to think about medicine and she decided to apply to med school. It was a decision she never regretted.

When I was told that women couldn’t get into orthopedics programs, that’s when I said, ‘I’m definitely going to pursue that!’

At Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Weber was drawn to surgery as a specialty. “My personality lends itself to surgery,” she said with a laugh. “I like to be definitive, make decisions, and see results quickly.”

As for specializing in orthopedics, she was spurred into action by the prevailing attitude at the time.

“I liked orthopedics because I had a bit of sports in my background. But when I was told that women couldn’t get into orthopedics programs, that’s when I said, ‘I’m definitely going to pursue that!’,” she explained.

It is that kind of tenacity that has defined Weber’s career. She completed her orthopedic residency training at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, followed by a 2-year research and clinical fellowship in orthopedic oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her mettle was tested along the way. In addition to clinical and educational rigors, Weber often had to combat something far more insidious: gender bias.

“I have been referred to multiple times as Sweetie or Honey or Sugar,” she said. “One time it was even said as part of a job interview. Needless to say, I didn’t want to be part of an environment where that was okay. I try to choose my positions where I think the conversation is going to be elevated and women are treated as equals to men.”

Luckily, there were many such environments to be found. Weber looks back especially fondly on her residency training at the University of Iowa, a program she said set a shining example for inclusion and open-mindedness in the early 1990s.

“There are pockets around the country where institutional leadership is exceptionally supportive,” she said. “When you see many women and under-represented minority residents and faculty in academic programs, you can tell the leadership values that.”

“Then there are programs where you can tell that leadership doesn’t value that,” she added. “Nevertheless, I hope we’re moving toward more inclusion and diversity in our programs around the country.”

A Move Toward Inclusiveness

Weber teaching young women at a Penn Perry Initiative event.

Weber is quick to point out that she does not have a mandate or platform for the next 12 months, but said she certainly hopes the AAOS moves toward greater inclusiveness.

“I believe we should work toward a stance where we’re not imposing any barriers to people who are interested in joining the field, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation,” she said. “Obviously people have to be qualified and get in for all the right reasons; it’s a competitive field. But I don’t think there should be any reason that anyone who’s qualified doesn’t get in.”

One of the three primary goals in the 5-year strategic plan approved by the AAOS board last December focuses on culture. It states that the society hopes to evolve the culture and governance of the academy’s board and volunteer structure to become more strategic, innovative, and diverse.

“We’re going to be seriously looking at what diversity is,” Weber explained. “This isn’t a goal that says were going to go from 6% to 16% of practicing women in orthopedics; that isn’t realistic. It says we’re basically going change the face of what you see when you look at the academy. In addition to more women and under-represented minorities, it may be a better mix of private practice, employed physicians, and academic people. There should be a range of ages of our volunteer leaders as we get more young people involved.”

The academy’s next goal for the 2019–2023 period is to provide a personalized and seamless member experience. Much of this will be focused on updating the society’s educational resources and initiatives.

“Frankly, we’ve been in the dark ages,” said Weber. “We’ve got books on the shelves and we need to move into digital connectivity with our members, especially the younger ones. We need to be like Google and give them what they want, when they want it, and how they want it, rather than communicating in ineffective ways.”

The plan’s final goal focuses on quality, as the academy strives to equip its members to thrive in today’s value-based environments and advance the quality of orthopedic care. “We really want to embrace this and move toward better outcomes for patients,” she reported. “And in doing so, we have to let go of some things that don’t work and embrace the things that do.” In fact, the AAOS recently embarked on a registry initiative that will give it access to orthopedic data from across the country.

The academy is serious about implementing its goals, as well as measuring success. “None of these goals are just going to be words on a page,” she said. “All of them have metrics and strategic objectives, and we will be executing them over the next 5 years to achieve the metrics that allow us to meet those goals.”

The realization of these three goals will go a long way toward ensuring that the academy is poised to embrace the many changes that will inevitably affect the specialty in the years to come, such as the potential for biologics, particularly in arthritis care.

“I look forward to the day when we have a biologic solution for people’s joint degradation,” Weber said.

Honing existing techniques will also go a long way toward improving patient care, as will the academy’s new registries. “For me, I think defining what works and what doesn’t is a huge part of optimizing care,” she explained. “I think we’ve been a little remiss in that respect. Now we want to be really clear on how we can help people most.”

Weber relishes the opportunity be part of a team committed to making real change. She also said she sees this as “an opportunity to be a role model for other women in the field, especially early in their careers, and hopes this “won’t be a one-off” and that “there will be many women to follow.”

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