Advance with MUSC Health

Women Physicians Embracing New Technologies to Advance Care

Advance With MUSC Health
September 20, 2022
Shuttershock image of care team members performing robotic surgery

Women physicians nationwide and at MUSC Health are helping to shape the future of medicine. They’re mentoring the next generation of women physicians at the bedside, in research laboratories, and in their communities. They’re also embracing new technologies and treatments to deliver the most advanced care to their patients. One example is through robotic surgery, a field dominated by their male colleagues. An alternative to open and laparoscopic surgery, robotic surgery is minimally invasive and considered safer and more efficient for certain procedures. Patients experience less pain, have shorter hospital stays, and recover more quickly. It also requires a commitment to learning and to delivering the best patient care.

To recognize MUSC Health’s women physicians and their achievements during Women in Medicine month, (September), we talked with two physicians, Dr. Christine Hemphill and Dr. Katlyn Baxter, to find out how they use robot-assisted technology to treat their patients. Read below to find out what inspired them to go into medicine, why they continue to learn new technologies, and what it means for their patients.

Dr. Christine Hemphill, MUSC Women’s Health of Kershaw

Dr. Christine HemphillDr. Hemphill joined MUSC Women's Heath of Kershaw in Lugoff as an obstetrician-gynecologist in 2021. She earned her degree in exercise science from the University of South Carolina. She is a graduate of the Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine and completed her residency training at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. Dr. Hemphill has special interests in minimally invasive surgery/robotic surgery, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, prevention of pelvic adhesions/scarring, abnormal uterine bleeding, infertility, recurrent pregnancy loss, postpartum depression, and thyroid disease. She also offers microsurgery for tubal sterilization reversals.

Q. What inspired you to go into medicine?

A. My father tells me I was always interested in medicine. When I was 10 years old, I had the top grade in my class, and that’s the first time I realized I was smart. I started thinking about career fields, and when I got into middle school, I began looking into medical careers. I settled on radiology, but while a student at MUSC, I felt pulled toward the primary care fields, particularly obstetrics and gynecology, because I liked working in the OR.

Q. What do you use the robot for?

A. I use robotic surgery to treat endometriosis and to perform ovarian wedge resection, an older procedure in which a part of the ovary is removed to promote ovulation. A lot of my patients come to me for fertility therapy and pelvic pain, and a large portion of those conditions is related to endometriosis. Robotic surgery allows for excision, which is superior to ablation, to be more precise.

Q. What are the advantages of robotic-assisted surgery for the patient and for the physician?

A. Recovery from robotic surgery takes between three and 14 days, compared with six weeks or more after open surgery. Even in those two weeks of recovery, my patients are able to resume some activities because there’s significantly less pain. Robotic surgery makes it possible to perform procedures that are hard to do with conventional surgery. It provides clearer visualization for the 3-D technique, and it can help to magnify the images that we see, which is very valuable when the disease is subtle. The instruments are wristed, so I can get into the nooks and crannies that are more difficult to reach or wouldn’t be able to reach with conventional surgery. It also decreases surgeon fatigue. Standing at the bedside can be tiring when the procedure lasts more than four hours.

Q. Why did you choose to learn robotic surgery?

A. My residency program at East Carolina was advanced in minimally invasive surgery, and robotic surgery was available from the very beginning. I knew it would be helpful in my career and I made a point of learning it. I made sure that I knew and had good relationships with the attending physicians who did robotic surgery, and I told my resident colleagues that, if they didn’t mind, those were the cases I wanted to participate in. I made sure that the attending physicians felt comfortable with me at the bedside and trusted that I knew what I was doing. I was granted privileges to operate with robotics immediately in my fellowship program, so I’ve used robotic surgery my entire career.

Q. Do you give your patients a choice between traditional surgery and robotic surgery?

A. If the procedure is more complicated, I do recommend robotic surgery. It just recently became available at MUSC Health Columbia Medical Center Northeast, so many of my patients waited until then, some as long as eight months because they wanted the benefits of robotic surgery instead of the open approach.

Q. Have you always embraced new techniques and methods in your care of patients?

A. I like being on the leading edge of care when appropriate, but I want to be shown that a new technique is better than what I’m using. I’m always willing to see a demonstration of a new instrument and I’m open to a lot of things. I like learning from my more experienced colleagues. I try to go to conferences and communicate with my colleagues.

Q. Was it difficult to learn?

A. Getting the robotic platform set up, operating the console and troubleshooting is not hard, but learning robotic technology and becoming proficient requires a lot of extra effort. There is just a small pool of women surgeons, and particularly women, using robotics. It’s definitely one of those areas that is male-dominated. Generally, women are balancing more responsibilities, so for someone who didn’t train in residency, learning requires extra effort. If you find a woman using robotic surgery, she’s made an effort to excel.

Q. What advice would you give girls and young women considering a career in medicine?

A. It is possible to be a successful woman physician, and women can also excel in the surgical fields of medicine. However, it takes a lot of sacrifice, and balancing a family is challenging. That is something that must be taken into consideration. I was able to do it because I have a husband who has understood that medicine was my calling and he has supported me in my career. He has helped run the household. If you want family and a medical career, be sure your life partner is on the same page, and even then, it is hard. The “traditional family roles” likely won’t apply. For example, my kids ran to their father first when they had a boo-boo, and the schools and other parents knew him as the contact person for the kids. However, I’d also recommend that if you are wanting to have a family and a medical career, don’t delay starting your family just because you are still training. It is very possible to raise a family while completing your training. I had my first baby in medical school, my second baby in residency, my third baby in fellowship, and then I have had two more as an attending physician. You don’t have to choose between career and family; it is possible to have both.

Dr. Katlyn (Katie) Baxter – MUSC Health Florence Medical Center

Dr. Katlyn BaxterDr. Baxter specializes in pulmonary and critical care medicine and practices at MUSC Health Florence Medical Center. She earned her bachelor’s degree in health sciences at Cleveland State University and her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from Ohio University. She completed her internal medicine residency at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital (Columbus, OH) and her pulmonary and critical care fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA). She is board-certified in pulmonary medicine and has special interests in interstitial lung disease, pulmonary nodules, shock management, process improvement, and patient safety.

Q. What inspired you to go into medicine?

A. Growing up, I was always surrounded by nurses and first responders. My mom is a nurse practitioner, so Sunday dinners were filled with interesting stories. However, it was personal experiences within the health care system, both good and bad, that led me to consider the career for myself. I initially thought I would be a firefighter/paramedic, but the more I learned about medicine and the complexities of the human body, I knew that becoming a physician was the right path for me. Having played basketball in college, I was also drawn to the team-based approach that medicine provides.

Q. What attracted you to pulmonary and critical care medicine?

A. I like laser-focusing on critically ill patients and doing everything that we can quickly. Critical care involves a multidisciplinary team, and working with a variety of specialists, from pharmacists and nutritionists to cardiologists and surgeons, is what I enjoy. It’s like general medicine on steroids; every day brings a different challenge. Being at the bedside for patients when they’re in the most need, being there for the families, and then watching these patients heal and leave the hospital reaffirms my decision to go into critical care.

Q. When do you use robotic surgery?

A. I perform robot-assisted navigational bronchoscopy to determine if a patient has early-stage lung cancer. The navigational technology is new and is a major advance in diagnosing and treating potential lung cancers. It is a complete game-changer for reaching the nodules we need to get to for biopsy and for our patients. In fact, MUSC Health Florence Medical Center was the first hospital in the region to offer this technology.

Q. How does it work?

A. A robot-assisted navigation bronchoscope has a special catheter with a camera on the tip of it that can rotate 360 degrees in any direction, whereas normal scopes can only flex up and down, and the rotation is done by hand. This flexibility allows us to advance all the way through the airways in the lung to nooks and crannies that we never would have been able to get or even consider trying to reach. CT imaging and computer planning performed prior to the procedure help create basically a GPS map to the lung nodule.

Q. What are the advantages for the patient and the medical team?

A. The ability to diagnose and treat lung cancer with this technology at a very early stage when it is survivable is a major advancement in lung cancer management. Robotic-assisted navigational bronchoscopy allows us to get to the small nodules, diagnose and stage them all in one procedure. We can get tissue samples, send them to pathology, get a response in real-time, and determine whether the patient will need a resection or another type of therapy. This alleviates the need for a second procedure and allows us to take care of the patient as quickly as possible.

Q. What led you to learn robotic technology?

A. Our group here at MUSC Health Florence was planning to invest in the robot because we knew it would be a game-changer for what we could do, and I wanted to be able to offer it to my patients. I got the training as soon as I arrived in February. I did coursework online, and then attended training in Atlanta and worked closely with a physician who had extensive experience in robotic technology.

Q. What do you tell your patients about robot-assisted navigational technology? Do you use it on all your patients undergoing bronchoscopy?

A. I take a lot of time to make sure my patients fully understand all the steps and all the options. We’re selective with patients whom we do this on. I use this on patients who benefit the most, specifically patients whose CT shows a nodule that is concerning for early-stage cancer. The goal is to diagnose it while it is still at a stage where surgery can cure their cancer.

Q. What would you tell female physicians about robotic technology?

A. I would tell them to advocate to bring this technology to their program if it’s not already available because the newer technologies will benefit their patients. Learning anything new can be intimidating for anyone. There’s going to be a learning curve, but that’s part of growth and advancement in medicine and pushing ourselves to be, and do, better for our patients. Moreover, I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it if my male counterparts are doing it too. I had no hesitation about robotic technology given the clear benefit it could offer.

Q. What would you tell girls and young women who are considering becoming a physician?

A. I would tell them that there’s no reason why they can’t follow their dreams. Medicine offers that opportunity to do anything you want to do. There is no ceiling; you can advance and learn new things. We know women are just as smart and capable as men, and they bring a different perspective and a “woman’s touch” to the profession. I would also tell them that medicine must be a passion and something you love and really want to do because it is a long, grueling process to become a physician. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, it’s worth it to push through and achieve your dream.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Hemphill, call 803-438-0825. To make an appointment with Dr. Baxter, call 843-673-7529.