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One surgeon’s pearls for career happiness


Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH discusses ophthalmology and what she wishes she knew to start her career. As well as tips for other ophthalmologists who are just starting their careers.

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH discusses ophthalmology and the things she wishes she knew to start her career. As well as tips for other ophthalmologists who are just starting their career with David Hutton, Managing Editor, Ophthalmology Times®.

Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

David Hutton:

Hello, I'm David Hutton of Ophthalmology Times. Joining me today is Dr. Priya Matthews, a cornea, cataract, and refractive surgeon from Center for Sight in Sarasota, Florida. Thank you so much for joining us today. First off, what do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your career?

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH:

Thank you, David, for this invitation - I’m so happy to be here. I'll try to make this short because there's a lot that I wish I knew when I was starting my career. But if I could give one piece of advice, it would be that I wish I knew that everyone has their own path.

You don't really have to know exactly what you will be doing from the beginning. As doctors, we go through a very structured regimen- you go to college, take the MCAT, go to medical school, then residency, and maybe fellowship, etc. Your career is different- you have the opportunity to evolve at any point. You don't have to follow any particular path of someone you know. For example, I was only exposed to ophthalmologists within academics, and they were all incredible.

However, I thought that I had to be in academics to make an impact and participate in research studies, etc. But after starting at my first job after training (private practice), I realized that I could incorporate what I loved about academics (i.e. research, complex cases), be involved in the public health field, and work with industry. I didn’t know anyone who did all of those things, but I sought mentors in all of those various fields. Then eventually, with time, I integrated those various aspects into my career.

For those doctors who are earlier in their career, please remember that you can create your own path within ophthalmology based on your individual passions and interests. And there is no doubt that you will be successful as long as you do what love.

David Hutton:

If you could specialize in another area in ophthalmology, what would you specialize in?

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH:

Everyone who knows me, knows that I love cornea. I can't imagine doing anything else! But if there was a second subspecialty that I would consider, it would be oculoplastics.

David Hutton:

Do you have any advice for the ophthalmologists who are just starting their careers?

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH:

Great question. As I mentioned before, we follow a very structured path up to our first job. At the end of fellowship, we think “Wow, I made it and that's it. The rough days are over.” But I would say that the first two to three years of practicing feels like another fellowship. If you go into it with that mentality and wanting to learn as much as possible, you're going get a lot out of it and it will set up your future career trajectory.

Also, for the ophthalmologists who are starting out, don’t forget that it's okay not to know the answer to everything. You could always tell patients, “I'm going to talk to some of my colleagues and I'll get back to you.” Reach out to your mentors that you've had in the past, or connect with other surgeons around the country who specialize in the area that you have a question about.

Since I finished fellowship a few years ago, I have reached out to dozens of surgeons about various topics related to cornea, LASIK, and refractive cataract surgery (some of those people I have never met in person). That’s how we keep learning! Also, I would encourage everyone to learn about the business aspect of medicine from the beginning, which is something that we are not formally taught. Try to learn coding and billing, which we have never had to do ourselves until after training.

My last piece of advice is- don’t forget that you are a leader. We are not formally taught leadership skills during medical school or residency, however doctors have to use these skills on a daily basis. Even if you only have a team of three people, you are still a leader. You have to really take care of your team, because they're an extension of you. In ophthalmology, our quality of care greatly depends on the staff members who surround us. So it is imperative to support and appreciate the individuals who allow you to deliver the best care possible.

David Hutton:

And if you could, what would you tell students currently enrolled in an ophthalmology program?

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH:

I think that obviously, learn as much as you can from every single patient. There's at least one thing you can learn from every patient and every faculty member. Also, it's important to think about mentors on many levels. If you're a first-year resident, identify a third year that you really connect with, and also identify someone who's in fellowship in a field that you're interested in.

Additionally, meet people who are early in their career, and then someone in the later stages of their career, because all of these people will have different advice that is pertinent to you and could be very valuable. During residency, I met a lot of people at these meetings that ended up being my close friends and colleagues in the future. That's one of the best things about ophthalmology! It's a very small family and everyone gets to know each other.

I just came back from a meeting in Mexico- and I had a blast hanging out with the ophthalmology friends that I have made over the years. The relationships you make now will last the rest of your life. Your coresidents now are people that you can stay in touch with and ask questions about patient care, business side of medicine, or anything you'd like. So be nice to everyone and make friends. Also, there are excellent resources like Young MD Connect, which didn't exist when I was in training. So use these groups to meet other doctors at the same stage as you, and to make mentors as well.

David Hutton:

And lastly, in ophthalmology, what keeps you up at night?

Priya M. Mathews, MD, MPH:

That's a great question. The answer would probably be certain cornea patients with severe disease that I’m worried about. Luckily, as every year goes by, you gain more confidence about your problem solving and decision making.

Also, doing new surgical techniques that you have not done before in training can be nerve-wracking. What you learned in fellowship was very accurate at that time, however every year surgical techniques are evolving. So there will come a point that you're doing new things in the operating room that you've never done with someone else watching. However, I think certainly gets better with time, and you learn how to execute new technology and techniques in a manner that is safe and accurate.

Thankfully in ophthalmology, we are lucky to not have to stay up at night too often!

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