October 15, 2021 by John Fernandez
Few Female Neurosurgeons in the U.S. Hold Leadership Positions. One of Them is at Miami Neuroscience Institute
Data show that women are significantly under-represented in academic neurosurgery: Although half of all medical school graduates are women today, there continues to be a significant gender gap in most subspecialties, mainly surgical subspecialties such as neurosurgery.
According to a recent meta-analysis, women represent only 12 percent of neurosurgeons in the U.S. and Canada, with significantly less representation at the full professor level (5.84 percent). Likewise, only about 7.5 percent of women hold first-in command leadership positions, while about 5 percent hold second-in-command positions within their institutions.
Miami Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health, is an exception to this trend with the appointment of neurosurgeon Jobyna Whiting, MD, to director of Degenerative Spine Surgery at Miami Neuroscience Institute. Before joining Baptist Health, Dr. Whiting was in private practice in Orlando and previously was an assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery at Columbia University.
Dr. Whiting specializes in spine surgery and general neurosurgery. She has lectured and presented research findings at medical meetings and published multiple papers in peer-reviewed medical journals. Dr. Whiting is also a member of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
Since childhood, she always had a strong desire to be a doctor but did not get “bitten by the neuroscience bug” until her second year of medical school. “It’s a challenging field and I like challenges,” says Dr. Whiting. “My favorite part about my job is watching people who are in pain get better, come out of pain, and get their lives back.”
Dr. Whiting is known for taking on complex cases with accurate diagnoses and outcome-based treatment approaches. She was recently featured in a case study involving a 38-year-old new mother experiencing back pain and arm numbness. The previously athletic patient attributed her condition to “mom pain” but was concerned because her pain and numbness prevented her from picking up her 2-year-old child and even blow-drying her hair.
“She came to Miami Neuroscience Institute with a complaint of back pain,” recalls Dr. Whiting. “But it was recognized that she had a much more potentially dangerous issue going on at the same time, and that allowed them to navigate her to someone like me who could help with that.”
An MRI spotted an abnormality and resulting compression of the spinal cord that was causing arm numbness and weakness of her grip. Dr. Whiting noted that the condition could progress to permanent spinal cord injury, “like loss of function; loss of ability to use your hands; loss of ability to use your legs; loss of control even over your bowel and your bladder; It was not a safe option for her not to do the surgery.”
The patient underwent anterior cervical discectomy and fusion at the cervical 5 to cervical 6 levels. “I took the disc out from the front, until I could peel it off of the spinal cord and the nerves, and then I replaced it with a small plug of cadaver bone, and then a short plate that goes over the front of the two bones.”
Immediately after surgery, the patient reported that she was pain-free for the first time in years. After her post-operative recovery, the patient regained the functionality she lost and was able to pick up her son. The patient also reported that her willingness to undergo the spinal surgery was due, in part, to the tremendous comfort level she had with her female neurosurgeon.
“There is a big imbalance between the number of male neurosurgeons and female neurosurgeons who are available,” says Dr. Whiting. “There are many patients out there who just feel a little more comfortable as a female patient interacting with a female surgeon.”
Women in Neurosurgery (WIN) notes that barriers for female neurosurgeons exist in every phase before entering residency, during training, and at the workplace. To help address this discrepancy, Dr. Whiting actively participates in the mentorship of future female neurosurgeons.
“I actually see and interact with a decent number of young female students,” says Dr. Whiting. “My recommendation is to go for it. [Neuroscience] is a great career. I think at this point, there’s nothing to stop you.”