Academic OB/GYN Discusses Her Journey to the Specialty

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Session 54

Dr. Esther Koai is an academic general OB/GYN. Listen to what drew her to OB/GYN, what she recommends you do if you’re interested in it and so much more.

She talks about her role, why she chose the specialty, and what you should be thinking about if you’re interested in getting into OB/GYN.

Also, check out all our podcasts on MedEd Media. For suggestions of physicians you want interviewed here on the Specialty Stories, shoot Ryan an email at

[01:07] An Interest in OB/GYN

Esther says she likes working with women as well as the comprehensive care OB/GYN’s provide. She also loves surgery. Specifically, she loves working with women and women’s issues, women’s health, and women’s sexual health. She does a lot of contraceptive counseling in the office. She finds a lot of women who may not feel comfortable of talking to their friends or mothers/family, or even a male provider about certain aspects of their sexual health. And they’ll open up to a gynecologist or open up to someone listening specifically for certain things.

[Tweet “”It’s a good mix of both the patient side, the continuity of care, and the surgical aspect of care.””]

She realized this was the path for her during her four year of medical school. She finished her OB/GYN rotation on the third year. It was towards the end of her third year that she applied to all of her neuro electives as she was going into neurology. Then her last rotation of third year was Pediatrics and she realized in the middle of that rotation that she was much more interested in the maternal fetal aspect of things. She missed the labor floor since she had so much fun at her OB rotation. So she ended up canceling all of her fourth year electives and reapplying for OB/GYN.

[03:47] Traits that Lead to Becoming a Good OB/GYN

Esther thinks that in order to be a good OB/GYN, you have to be a good clinician and have that clinical acuity. You also have to be able to act fast. Similar to emergency medicine where you have to be able to respond fast. You have to be able to recognize that this is an emergency and you’ve got to call your team in and all that.

Additionally, you have to be able to be flexible and be able to go between your OB and GYN patients. That means you have to switch back and forth from doing prenatal care to doing a paps smear and all of that.

As an OB/GYN, she can decide whether she wants to focus on GYN over the other and vice versa. She explains it depends on your department but you can say you can focus more on GYN and do more teaching. There are people who refer their hysterectomies to her.

[Tweet “”In order to be a good OB/GYN, you have to be a good clinician and have that clinical acuity.””]

[05:18] Academic vs. Community Setting

Part of the reason she chose to go into academic medicine versus going out in the community is her love of teaching. She loves teaching both her patients and residents and medical students, which you can only get in the academic setting.

They do a lot of grand analysis and statistics and a lot of academic activities sprinkled in throughout her week. And she enjoys those.

She did interview at a couple private practices but she found they just weren’t for her. Part of it too is the thrill of just being in a high, action-packed, high risk academic center. Because you can see all the cool, crazy stuff out there. You get all the referrals for the intricate medical puzzles.

[06:37] Types of Patients, Typical Day, and Taking Calls

Being at a big academic center, Esther is seeing a wide range of patients. They’re an accreta center so they see a lot of placenta accretas. They do hysterectomies. They have a Level 1 NICU. So they’re able to deliver very premature infant. Their MFM (Maternal Fetal Medicine) team is well-developed so they have a larger referral base.

A typical day for Esther would be Mondays, she would have a morning off for paperwork. Monday afternoons, she precepts the residents in clinic. Tuesday mornings, they have their academic days – stats, rounds, etc. And they usually have their own panel in the morning and then in the afternoon, she precepts again and do continuity clinic. By panel, she means her own patients. So Wed-Thurs, she sees her own patients.

Usually, two Wednesday nights per month, she’d be on call. So she would be post call on two Thursdays. And then Fridays, she’s in the hospital either doing labor and delivery cases and OR cases.

It’s her personal preference to have clinics just by herself on days and with residents other days. She chose to be a clinic preceptor and she enjoys teaching and seeing patients with the residents.

Esther takes three overnight calls a month. One is a 24-hour shift on a weekend and the other two are 15-hour shifts. It’s an in-house call where she’s there with the residents. They see all the patients, triage them, and present them to her. Then she will go and reevaluate and go over things they may have missed or they may have not thought about.

[Tweet “”It can get pretty busy to where I get no sleep at all. And it can also be every once in a while, very chill and laid back.””]

[09:45] Percentage of Patients in the OR

For Esther, the percentage of patients that come from her clinic ending up in the OR is higher. During Wednesdays and Thursdays, she’s at a site where she’s the GYN consult. So all the patients she sees have already been screened by a family medicine or internal medicine provider. They refer them to her because they need additional workup of they’re a little bit more complicated. So she only sees GYN patients that are more complicated on those days.

She thinks she has a disproportionately high number of GYN patients that she ends up doing procedures on. She estimates it would be a third to a half, she ends up looking for cases. Everything else is either medical management or routine.

[10:44] Work-Life Balance

Esther feels like she never has enough time for family. For her the work-life balance is what you make of. Like when you’re able to utilize your vacations well. She has one weekend of call a month so she gets to spend time with family for most weekends. And she thinks this is better than if she were in private practice.

[Tweet “”Work-life balance is what you make of.””]

[11:25] The Training Path to Become an OB/GYN and Competitiveness

After medical school, you have four years of residency. Then if you want to specialize, they have two to three year fellowships including Family Planning, GYN Oncology, Maternal Fetal Medicine, Urogynecology, Minimally Invasive Surgery, Reproductive Endocrinology, and Infertility. Family Planning Fellowship involves contraceptive counseling, IUD placements, dilation curettage, dilation evacuations, terminations, etc.

Esther doesn’t think it’s one of the more competitive residencies. Rather, it depends on the program so she’d describe it as mid-range, much like Emergency Medicine. What they’re looking for in applicants are those who are willing to put a lot of time and effort into the residency. It does suck up a lot of your time. As far as research and things go, they’re not really a huge research center so applicants can do academic research at their program. But it’s not the program that turns out into academic literature. But they’re looking for people who are able to see a high volume patients and are willing to deal with patients with high morbidity and who are obese. They’re able to deal with patients with multiple medical problems. They’re looking for people who are ultimately going to be happy.

For someone doing an elective rotation as a medical student, it can be hard to look for these qualities. But part of it is just the general feel. The residents are pretty clear about whom they click with. So her first move is to usually ask the residents what they think of the applicant or the sub-I. She’d find out whether they seem interested or engaged or they just checked out in the corner.

[Tweet “”People always put their best face forward, or at least, should be putting their best face forward.””]

Esther explains that the mark of a good sub-I is someone who is just very much part of the team, very self-motivated, and somebody you would rely on just as much as your own intern.

[14:35] Bias Towards DOs and Working with Primary Care and Other Specialties

Esther hasn’t seen a lot of negative biases towards DOs. And part of that is because one of their MFM’s at their program who is highly respected and he ended up being the director of the department at their site, is a DO. That said, they haven’t had any DO residents so she hasn’t really encountered any other DO OB/GYNs. Alternately, she does see a lot of DOs in Anesthesiology and they’re doing just fine.

What she wished primary care providers knew about OB/GYN to better serve their patients is that they knew more about contraceptive counseling for one. And in general, she wished more people felt more comfortable talking about and dealing with female anatomy. It’s a daunting idea to people who don’t routinely work in that field so it’s something that people tend to shy away from. But there’s nothing scary about it, Esther says. Other specialties she works the closest with include Urology, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, and Surgery.

[Tweet “”There are a lot of misinformed statements floating around out there about contraceptives.””]

[17:02] Special Opportunities Outside Clinical Medicine, What She Wished She Knew, and the Most and Least Liked Things

Special opportunities outside the clinical world for OB/GYN may include work in patient safety. They have so many obstetric emergency situations. So there are opportunities in patient safety in QI.

What she wished knew that she knows that you’ve got to really work really hard. But it’s all going to be worth it in the end. The amount of knowledge that you gain and the amount of surgical prowess you gain are just unbelievable. It’s so rewarding to be able to apply that on a day to day basis.

What she likes most about the job is the patient counseling. She likes having that sit-down conversation with them where she’s able to connect with them and they understand things about their own health they may not have understood before. She adds it’s an aha moment for every patient when they find out something they’ve never known before. She finds this very rewarding. And for selfish reasons, she says she loves doing surgery and for her, it’s an immediate gratification.

What she likes the least on the flip side is chronic pelvic pain in terms of the types of patients and treating them and all the stuff that goes with it. She finds it cumbersome and difficult to treat. She thinks it’s very multifactorial and patients usually get bounced around from place to place. Then they come to you very frustrated because they’ve tried everything.

[19:20] Major Changes in the Field of OB/GYN and the Future of Residencies

She thinks there’s a lot of tracking going on and in other fields as well. Especially in OB/GYN where they’re two very separate fields meshed together into one. And this is reflected a lot in the way that the entire field is moving both in the academic and in the private world. Before, you’d see more generalist doing both OB and GYN, but now you’re seeing people doing OB only as laborists or GYN only in the clinic. And it’s becoming more of a divisive field, Esther puts it. So this is the general trend of things and a lot of academic centers are doing it.

[Tweet “”You have your OB side and then you have your Gynecological side. If you weren’t dealing with the same organs, they’d be almost totally separate fields.””]

Although she’s not yet seeing this as of the moment, but potentially down the line, there is that possibility of students applying to OB-specific residencies and GYN-specific residencies. Esther says that if she had to do it all over again, she would still have chosen the same. She loves the people and the patients. She thinks it’s a great field and it’s fast-paced and can be very intense. But you can also make it very calm and inviting. So it’s a very versatile field.

Lastly, she leaves the premed students with an advice to do it. Be enthusiastic. Be curious and ask questions. Seek out the puzzles and really dive right in. There’s no better way to experience something other than just committing 100%. It’s so rewarding to be able to talk to a patient and have them really hear what you’re saying and have them light up.


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