Dr. Caitlin McMullen, head and neck surgeon in the Department of Head and Neck-Endocrine at Moffitt Cancer Center, recently received recognition as one of the 40 under 40 female surgeons by the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS). This award distinguishes 40 female surgeons throughout the nation leading the way for women in surgery. These individuals have made tremendous contributions to healthcare and are committed to professional development and patient care.
Dr. McMullen shares her journey of becoming a head and neck oncology surgeon, her research endeavors and accomplishments and the importance of building meaningful relationships with her patients.
What led you to become a head and neck oncology surgeon?
I have wanted to be a head and neck oncology surgeon ever since my first encounters with head and neck cancer patients when I was a medical student. I rotated on a service with a world-renowned head and neck surgeon who regularly performed complex and lengthy procedures to not only cure these patients but also to restore the functions that make up their humanity, such as appearance, ability to eat, and ability to communicate. I knew that I wanted to be a part of that – not only to cure cancer, but to try to give back some of what cancer had taken from these patients.
What do you like most about practicing medicine and why? What are your clinical/research interests?
I really enjoy getting to know all sorts of different kinds of people and helping them through their difficult situations. The collaborative nature of head and neck cancer care allows me to work with specialists in other areas from whom I continue to learn. In my clinical practice, I enjoy taking care of all head and neck-related issues including thyroid nodules and thyroid cancer, head and neck cancers and reconstructive surgery. My research endeavors mostly involve working with other institutions outside of Moffitt to collect larger numbers of patients and examine patient outcomes after surgery. I am also focused on issues facing our profession such as burnout, the importance of mentorship, and the need for comprehensive family leave policies.
How do you build rapport with patients in your care?
As the patient’s surgeon, it is important to me to get to know them and what is important to them to provide the best possible care. For example, if someone is a professional voice user, like a singer, I will ask about that prior to thyroid surgery because thyroidectomy rarely can affect the voice. I take into consideration the patient's profession and hobbies when planning their reconstructive surgery. Getting to know a patient not only builds their trust but also allows me to provide better care.
Can you share some of your greatest accomplishments?
Head and neck microvascular surgery is a demanding field with attrition due to long, physically demanding cases and high acuity patients. My personal experiences have driven my desire to improve the support, wellness, and retention of women physicians in our specialty, with the ultimate goal of improving patient care and educating a diverse future of head and neck surgeons. To this end, one of my most meaningful accomplishments has been the co-creation of a unique mentorship platform for early career head and neck microvascular surgeons. Our chat-based platform allows these surgeons to seek out advice and support in an informal setting regarding complex cases, personal concerns, and professional issues. This program has resulted in meaningful research collaborations, promotions, and professional longevity. I am proud to be a part of this program which has positively impacted women surgeons and head and neck patients worldwide.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Continuing on in my daily work at Moffitt! If I am still where I am now, caring for patients and building the projects I am already working on, in five years, I will be extraordinarily happy.
How do you maintain a work/life balance? What do you enjoy doing in your time off?
Pursuing personal interests and taking time away from work allows us to become better caregivers when we are on duty. Outside of my professional responsibilities, I enjoy spending quality time with my family, catching up with friends, and exercising.
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