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Trailblazing gastroenterologist shares her story

District marks International Women’s Day with a first at the AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre.

Group of women standing on steps; socially distancing
SydneyConnect Image: Staff at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital

Payal Saxena has forthright career advice for women in her field.

“Set a career goal rather than wait for career opportunities to fall into your lap. Consider what you want and how to achieve it. Work hard and it will pay off,” she said.

She’s a trailblazing gastroenterologist who specialises in interventional endoscopy and is a Visiting Medical Officer at RPA’s AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre.

“It’s a male dominated field. About 20 per cent of gastroenterologists in Australia are women and, globally in my sub-specialty of interventional endoscopy only about one-per-cent are women,” she said.

Today is International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow.

Trained in Sydney, the now Associate Professor Saxena completed an Interventional Endoscopy and Research Fellowship at the internationally recognised Johns Hopkins Hospital in the United States.

During that time, she learned new techniques which allow certain types of gastrointestinal tumours, cancers and cysts, achalasia and swallowing disorders to be treated without the need for surgery, resulting in much improved patient outcomes.

Invited by RPA’s Director of Endoscopy, Arthur Kaffes to join his team, she returned to Australia, but initially faced opposition from some about introducing the pioneering procedures.

“There was resistance from some senior male doctors. But I was determined and driven and I had the backing and support of surgeons, and my Director so I pushed on,” she said.

She later co-founded the Women in Gastroenterology Network Asia-Pacific (or WIGNAP) – a network which provides training opportunities, mentoring and develops the leadership skills of women in the field.

Now, she’s secured funding for a 12-month Interventional Endoscopy Fellowship specifically for training women – to be offered for the first time in 2023.

“It’s a carrot to go down that pathway. It will involve learning these advanced procedures and is an opportunity to do academic research,” she said.

There’s another first at the AW Morrow Gastroenterology and Liver Centre this year too – all of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Advanced Trainees and Fellows are women.

They are Dr Simone Chin, Dr Rachael Jacob, Dr Emily Nash, Dr Nadia Perera, Dr Lauren Tang and Dr Karen Waller (pictured with Associate Professor Saxena and Associate Professor Simone Strasser.)

“It’s the first time women have been appointed to all of these positions. They’re a group of smart, hardworking women who are supportive of each other,” Associate Professor Simone Strasser, a Senior Staff Specialist at the Centre, said.

Associate Professor Strasser, who specialises in liver transplantation and has worked at the RPA since 1999, will act as a mentor for them.

“When I first started, there were very few female mentors in my speciality. I’m happy to take on this role. I’m someone the advanced trainees and fellows can talk to if they need, and I’ll encourage and support them,” she said.

Associate Professor Strasser, the Immediate Past President of the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, has outlined ways to improve career opportunities for women in gastroenterology.

She’s identified barriers to training, a desire for work-life balance and a lack of female role models among the reasons for the gender imbalance in the speciality.

“It’s evolved since I first started. There are many more opportunities, but some challenges remain in terms of trying to develop your career and balance your family, or outside of work, commitments,” she said.