I feel very fortunate and privileged to count myself among the 50% of married people who married well. Now in our twentieth year of marriage, my husband has proven to be the most amazing partner, father, provider, and companion that any woman, let alone a woman surgeon, could ask for. But he is not the only partner that I value. Any doctor who runs a busy clinical practice will understand the importance of having a competent medical office assistant or secretary. I have, yet again, somehow managed to be lucky enough to work with the grand champion of MOAs.
My secretary, let’s call her Norine (because that’s her name), has been in the business for many years. She started at the age of 17, fresh out of school, working for one of my senior mentors and has made running a surgical office her career. She knows the ins and outs of surgical bookings and preparations, whom to call to most efficiently book required investigations, and which patients need a little extra TLC. She is unfailingly polite, pleasant, and cheerful on the phone, even when she is unfairly getting the gears, or is the bearer of bad news like surgical cancellations or postponements. She is the organizer of my ungainly waitlist, and when emergencies demand it, she is the one who bravely faces canceling entire clinic days. She is the face of my practice, and our patients consistently and spontaneously remind me that she is a great face. She, without being asked to, organizes patients’ appointments to coincide with other specialists’ so that patients who travel far need only make one trip. She arrives before me in the morning and leaves when she feels her work is done, usually later than I think she should. She suffers through my dictation and its occasional expletives. She doesn’t take enough holidays yet maintains an excellent sense of humor. She knows to be suspicious if I start a conversation with, “Wow, your hair looks really great today!” because it usually means I’ve messed up in some way that means more work for her. She is the den mother for our residents and fellows and every fellow has threatened to hire her away from me. She is not just an employee, she is the most valuable partner I have in my career, and I tell her so as often as I can without crossing that line into stalking. I probably do cross it, actually.
I think that she feels the patients are hers as much as mine, and my patients’ families often know her better than they know me. I am sometimes asked for advice by young trainees, especially young women considering surgical careers and families. How can they balance life and career goals? They can’t do it easily on their own. They need partners. The partners that can be picked should be chosen with great care and respect. In the case of office assistants and secretaries, I tell them to hire the very best person they can, pay them well, and then don’t micromanage them. Value them. Listen to them. Learn from them. Respect their time. Become day-to-day partners in the practice. It really improves your ability to do your own part of the job and decreases your and your patients’ stress.
I’m lucky, I know, to have been able to work with a true gem from the beginning of my practice; many of my colleagues have not had that happy opportunity. I think that in some cases, both on the part of the employee and employer, there might be an unrecognized bias that this is “just a job” or that secretaries are pretty interchangeable. Not in my world. I’ve told Norine that if she decides to retire before me (she is after all a whole one year older!), I will ask her to do one last task: advertise for my position. I couldn’t do it without her.
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