Clinician Profile: Q&A with Dr. Rachel Brakke

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Discussing mentorship, leadership, and academic medicine

Dr. Rachel Brakke, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at University of Colorado. She is a board certified physician in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and is also subspecialty certified in Sports Medicine and Pain Medicine. In addition, Dr. Brakke is the fellowship director for the ACGME-accredited Pain Medicine Fellowship at University of Colorado. Her interests include physician leadership and cultivating leadership in the workplace and through medical education.

I met with Dr. Brakke at the 2016 AAPM&R Annual Assembly, where we discussed her thoughts on physician leadership, academic medicine, mentorship, and networking.

CW: Did you always see yourself as a fellowship director, and was that your ultimate vision for your career?

RB: I always wanted to work in academics, but, no, I didn’t have the mindset that I wanted to be a fellowship director. I got an academic position and made it known that I was interested in a leadership role. I was approached to take on the role of fellowship director. Looking within myself if that role aligned with my career goals, I decided to take the position.

CW: Why do you think there is such a high attrition rate of women in academic medicine or fewer women in academic positions that hold leadership roles?

RB: I think it is difficult in academic medicine as a female because, right at the time you are supposed to pick up steam or advance in your career, it can be very difficult to balance having a family. For example, after seven years, you have to get promoted to associate and to do that you have to do certain things. Well, those seven years are exactly when women are planning to have families. So, I think the academic model is not supportive of women and families.

You should be able to take a pause button, such as “I’m not going to promotion for 11 years.” But I also think sometimes in that early part of your career, when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, it’s difficult for women. As a result, I feel women get into survival mode; they go to work, teach, and fulfill their family roles. As a result, they may feel like they don’t have time to do more than that for their career. I wish there was this culture of “do your family and in 5–10 years get that research mentor.” I also wish it was more encouraging — because not everyone falls into that same academic timeline.

CW: Is there something that you know now, or wish you knew before, with regards to academic medicine?

RB: I think it’s easy for young faculty to get pulled in lots of different directions and get distracted. I think it’s really important to say ‘no’. The really smart faculty members say “no” a lot to opportunities that don’t fit into their vision for their ultimate career goal. I think it’s really important — especially when you’re smart, capable, and approached by a lot of people — to be comfortable with saying no to those opportunities that don’t fit with where you want to be. If you say ‘yes’ to everything, when something really interesting comes along, you could be so stressed out that you don’t have the time to start what you really want to start.

I’d also like to add, don’t be shy about having very lofty goals for where you want to be in 10 to 15 years. Really pick out some of the opportunities that you might want to do to help you get there, or be available for them.

Also, keep a visionary mind of what you want and make goals; I can’t emphasize enough to make sure the opportunities that you take align with your ultimate destination.

And be bold.

Being a leader is not easy. Being fellowship director is very different from chair. You have to fire people, you have to be aware of what you’re shooting for. Don’t be afraid to have a unique pathway.

CW: For medical students or residents who want to get involved nationally in leadership positions within whatever specialty they are pursuing, what do you recommend as a pathway to pursue that endeavor?

RB: Both AAP (Association of Academic Physiatrists) and AAPM&R (American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation), along with most specialty organizations, want resident involvement and have resident physician councils. This is a great way to pursue involvement. I did that when I was a resident. That’s where I met a lot of people that I still talk to today. It’s where I’d start to get involved nationally, as well as volunteering for opportunities like a workshop and getting to know people through that. Another way is to attend the conference and present a poster.

First, you have to be present. Then, you can start to demonstrate your interests and try to take on goals within that organization. Most organizations are interested in resident and medical student involvement, people who reach out to whatever council they have to be involved with. Of everything in my career, I think my involvement in AAPM&R has been one of the most satisfying experiences. It’s where I’ve met the most people and have gotten the most mentorship. You can find mentorship in other organizations and institutions in whichever specialty you are pursuing.

CW: Any advice for young physicians looking for networking opportunities to launch them into leadership platforms?

RB: Use national conferences as a way to connect with people; you’re trying to expand your web, and I think that’s hard to do when you don’t always think of it. I remember my first day at AAPM&R. I was just a resident, I barely talked to the faculty. Then I joined the RPC and I met other residents from different programs. Keep meeting, year after year, and your network grows and grows. I think everyone’s goal is to meet three or four new people — and every year it just explodes. Now I can’t go to AAPM&R without being stopped by someone I know.

CW: How do you network at a conference, for example, for someone who’s a PGY-2, and how do you work the room?

RB: One option would be go to a council meeting or a subspecialty you’re interested in, and participate. So if they ask for your opinion, and you have something valuable to share, don’t be shy.

Another option is to attend poster presentations. Walk around and talk to people. See if there is anyone presenting an interesting topic that you’d be interested to research. Engage with that person and see where he or she is training. It’s a structured way to socialize. Also, go to the welcome reception and meet people. You have to be present and attend events at national conferences; you need to actively seek out people with similar interests in different stages of career.

The other advice I have, advice for life in general: you’d be amazed at what happens when you attend conferences alone. It’s amazing how many people I’ve met by just making remarks about sessions.

Take risks, be a little bit alone, and mingle. It might be incredibly awkward, but you’ll find someone else alone, spark a conversation, and always ask “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” You almost meet more people when you go alone.

The people you meet at conferences will be the people you want to collaborate with, future colleagues that might hire you — because who knows.

CW: For those who are seeking mentorship, what do you suggest or look for in a mentor?

RB: You want to like them, first off. Ask yourself, is their path similar to what you want to be, and have they navigated it well? Do they have a balance of things that are inline with your values? Keep your eyes open and don’t be shy. People love mentoring in general. You don’t have to call them a mentor or have a formal agreement; it just comes organically.

CW: Any final thoughts or advice for young physicians wishing to pursue active leadership in the future?

RB: Keep the connections you already have strong. All of the connections I have are genuine. It’s not forced. I think as a junior faculty, you should make every effort to attend national conferences because those are the times it’s going to matter the most. Didactics at the conferences can help refine your skills, but more importantly, you can grow your network. Who knows what opportunities will arise from just knowing people?

Carmen Wong, M.D., is a physiatrist in Aurora, CO and a 2016–2017 Doximity Fellow.

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