Dr. Dawn Sears is a busy board-certified gastroenterologist and hepatologist, mother of three, who “accidentally” stumbled into the role of a physician leader. She has not only become an authentic and highly-respected leader but also helped many women physicians develop leadership skills in their careers and lives. She is also an executive coach and founder of GutGirlMD. Along with two other amazing women physicians, she is organizing the first annual ACE (Authenticity, Courage, Empowerment) Conference for Women Physicians in San Antonio, Texas on April 28 to May 1st, 2022.
In part 1 of this inspiring 2-part interview, she shares:
Tune in to this episode to hear these astounding experiences and many more…
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Resources for Dr. Dawn Sears:
Conference: Renew Your Life and Your Career
Authenticity, Courage & Empowerment Conference for Women Physicians
April 28 - May 1, 2022
San Antonio, TX
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Dr. Dawn Sears on LinkedIn
Dr. Dawn Sears on KevinMD
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Note this document may have human or computer-generated errors in transcription. Refer to the audio file for the actual conversation.
Dr. Weili Gray, Host 00:00
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[00:00:48] Dr. Gray, Host: Welcome back everybody to The Dare To Dream Physician Podcast. I'm so excited today to bring our guest. Her name is Dr. Dawn Sears and she's a Board Certified Gastroenterologist, Hepatologist, a leader in healthcare and the Founder and CEO of Gut Girl MD, she's an Executive Coach. She just wears many, many hats and she has many passions and I can't wait for her to share her story and for her to share just her wealth of experience and wisdom with us today. So welcome, welcome Dawn.
[00:01:26] Dr. Sears, Guest: Thank you so much, Weilli. Thank you for having me here. It's been so exciting because we've been on our journeys parallel the last year of doing things with Entre MD, doing things with leverage and growth and here we are. So it's just so much fun to celebrate our victories together and our transitions together. So thank you so much for this opportunity.
[00:01:45] Dr. Gray, Host: Yeah. There's so many things that I, I can't wait for you to share with our audience. The thing that really interested me when I'm following your social media posts is, you recently made a big transition in your career. And during that transition, you did something that I am always very interested in, which is you took a sabbatical, you took some time off. And so why, why don't you share a little bit of that with us? And maybe a little bit of the journey beforehand and how you decided to make this transition.
[00:02:21] Dr. Sears, Guest: Yeah, thanks so much for pointing that out. It is been such a wonderful thing to make happen. You dream about it. You fantasize about it on any random Thursday, as you're looking at your notes or staring out the window. You're like, wouldn't it be amazing. Just take a walk, go out to eat, to sleep-in tomorrow. We all fantasize about that. And after making it through the first year of COVID that we did, and after making the decision that medicine was second, and draining the life out of me, and I was feeling myself growing a cancer. I was feeling myself slowly dying. I was feeling that I had given it all up and I couldn't do it anymore.
[00:03:00] Dr. Sears, Guest: And knowing I had to make several changes. I made a lot of plans so that I could take a sabbatical and I knew I wanted to take at least a hundred days off and it ended up being 106. So it was perfect. And I made the transition and made the ability to have the sabbatical between two jobs. My job of 23 years and then my new job, that was four days a week and a little bit more palatable schedule and a little bit more authentic to what I want to be doing at this stage of my life. I've already done all the things. I was the Chief. I was a Program Director. I did all the publications, wrote all the grants.
[00:03:35] I trained, you know,just a ton of amazing fellows, residents, medical students, trained nurse practitioners, PAs, had leadership roles throughout the hospital. I was on all the things, I was on the Board of Directors. I was on another Board of Directors. I'd been there, done that, and I wanted something new.
[00:03:52] And so I needed some time to have clarity and some time to really explore what that was going to look like if I was going to design my dream life and in order to do that, I had to step away completely. And I had to give myself a big block of time. So that meant I changed my spending habits. I moved into a smaller house. I started saving and I have enough savings that if I wanted to extend the sabbatical for much longer and triple it, I could have done that. And so being in control of the finances, so I never felt pressure of, oh my gosh, I need to get back to work now. Or I'm not going to have food on the table or shoes to wear or whatever…
[00:04:33] So it took some planning. I was very deliberate. And then I had to get coached on what I was going to do with my time. So I hired a personal coach, and we talked about what are you going to do with the one and only beautiful life you have and then having the end site in mind and going backwards.
[00:04:51] Dr. Sears, Guest: So through that time that I had off, I got my certification as an Executive Coach. I did lots of coaching myself. I did sleep in. I read about 30 books, half on audio book and a half on paper. I went out to lunch with girlfriends. I dreamed, I created, I started a couple LLCs. I started making YouTube videos. I started putting things out there in social media, and then I wanted to recreate the favorite part of my career, which was putting women leaders in medicine conferences together. And I wanted to be able to do it again on the other side. And that's where I am right now. So it's been a beautiful thing.
[00:05:29] Dr. Gray, Host: Wow. I ,that's amazing. I'm just in awe, as you're describing this, you're, you're just listing all your accomplishments, oh yeah, it's this and this and this. And I'm thinking, first of all, she looks way too young. And, and, and the other thing I'm thinking is I was, imagining this sabbatical, and it sounds like you were, you, you, you didn't do medicine, but you were quite busy.
[00:05:55] Dr. Sears, Guest: Yes. Yes. But as busy as I wanted to be, and I had control over my days, which was dramatically different as all of you that are still in medicine know. Every single minute of your day is scheduled. You're supposed to be doing a procedure you're supposed to be in the OR, you're supposed to be teaching. You're supposed to be seeing patients. You're supposed to be dictating. You're supposed to be doing something. But to know that my calendar, my days where my choice was the first time in my life, I had ever had that middle school, high school, college, all the side jobs, residency, fellowship. Even for my pregnancies, my first one was in residency. I had four weeks off my second one's in fellowship. I had four weeks off. My third one was in as a Senior Staff, so I had six weeks off. Let's get crazy, And so to actually take time off for not a medical need and for a mental, spiritual, holistic, need of what do I need to design my future? Was the best investment of my time.
[00:06:54] And knowing that I was getting some education along the way, then I don't feel like I'm being a slob or a loser bomb, but believe me, there was plenty of sleeping in and there was plenty of sitting in my bed until 10 O'clock just reading books in my bed. I felt no guilt about it at all. I know I put in my time for decades and so I didn't feel bad about it, but it was fascinating because I knew that one of my goals was to learn how to rest.
[00:07:20] I had never learned to rest. I had been in a serious accident in 2018. A motor vehicle accident where I was hit by a drunk driver. And so I had the insomnia that a lot of people have with concussions. That was my first time with meditation and actually capturing my, my thoughts and my brain and turning it down.
[00:07:38] But I had to learn a different way of resting when you actually have to carve that time to get creative and to think, and just to be, and to not feel that constant pressure, that those of us physicians and physician mamas feel that I've got to be doing something, gotta be doing something. I should be doing three things.
[00:07:55] I should be listening to a podcast while I'm emptying the dishwasher and talking to my child. I can't certainly just do one thing and I learned to just be present and just do one thing and then it wasn't just okay but it was glorious. Because then I could have the mind, space and power to actually envision what I wanted and not just go through the motions anymore.
[00:08:15] So everything changed, everything became real, but that first month was hard to learn how to rest and to hit the pause button. And to give myself grace and patience, but by the second month I had it figured out. And by the third month I was like, yeah, I know how to rest. I know how to just be. And then when I went back into work, it was much, much more calm.
[00:08:36] I didn't feel frazzled even as COVID was Delta surge was just reappearing. And I was like, dang it, I thought you guys were going to take care of this while I was in timeout. I come back and what have you done to the house? And I'm like, And it, it all worked out obviously as we're going into the next variant now, but that's okay. We're getting smarter.
[00:08:56] Dr. Gray, Host: I am so fascinated by your story and I think, a lot of physicians can resonate with what you just described is, you know, the life of an overachiever, the life of a, a very productive person. And, I'm amazed that, as you describe all those things that were on your plate, you said that you basically had this for 26 years.
[00:09:21] I mean, tell me a little bit more about that. what made it, what, what happened in the 26 year that got you to start to think about transitioning to something else or it got you to realize that, wait, this I'm doing the motions. I want to do something else. I want to get my dream life. And I want to know what that looks like. You know what sparked that?
[00:09:44] Dr. Sears, Guest: So many things, right? Medicine's been pretty hard in the last five years. It's not what it used to be. Um, we've seen a transition to business. We've seen us be transitioned to being a commodity, and we've seen us be from being leaders and respected in society and in the hospital walls to being replacable.
[00:10:05] And, um, we never thought that was going to be possible. And as COVID was hitting and the reality that all of us are replaceable, whether it's just dying on the job and you random Tuesday, or, them not feeling like they wanted our services or whatever, I said, wait a second, what am I doing? Maybe I should reevaluate.
[00:10:26] What I want to do with chapter two of my life. You know, I've already succeeded in meeting all the things and the ladder we're given is a ladder for a certain demographic, and we've made it fit for us women, females,mamas and breadwinners and taking care of the elderly and we we've made it work, but it hasn't served us well.
[00:10:49] And so part of my charge has been, we need to talk about there's another way to set us up for success. As I'm watching so many of my female colleagues either quit, go part time or get so burnt out, they go into depression, start using too much alcohol or actually taking their lives. What and the system is what is driving all of this behavior.
[00:11:14] So we need to start having hard discussions about the system. So it became obvious. My passion was to continue to talk about changes we need to make to the system that we need to acknowledge women are going to get pregnant, this isn't a shocker or oh my gosh, it's a cancer. No, we, we knew that that was possible because 85% of us do, we know that women are going to have miscarriages.
[00:11:34] We know that women are going to have a mammogram and we know that 10% of them will be abnormal and they will have a biopsy. All of this stuff isn't new information. And when you look at genders, when you look at insurance for car insurance, health insurance, there's different rates depending on gender and risk factors, but then we treat all female and male physicians and their benefits the same, wait, what, why would we do that?
[00:11:59] When we know that the woman's experience is going to be different. But we put on her the same pressure and we don't give her the extra time off for her medical needs that are going to come up. All of these things are hard discussions and I'm at a place, I got nothing, I am, I've already got my retirement.
[00:12:15] I'm fine. I can get out there and start having harder conversations and help empower other women with their voices to start having harder conversations and push back a little bit. Hey, have we really thought about how that hospital has a policy, where they're on every other week, how that's going to work with maternity leave for the 60% of hospitals we hired are female.
[00:12:35] And then knowing that 50% of our hires will be female and knowing that it costs the same. To train us in medical school, residency, and fellowship. But when we leave, it's still going to cost the institution $500,000 to a million dollars to replace us. So why don't we set us all up for success and start to creatively think creatively problem-solve.
[00:12:55] And so that was part of me getting out of the system is being able to have a little bit more of that brain space to think about solutions and not just tolerating it and not just surviving, but actually helping come up with a system that will help us thrive for longevity for our daughters.
[00:13:15] Dr. Gray, Host: Yeah, I love that. And that actually also brings up, another, another question that I'm dying to ask you about, which is I've seen your Kevin MD article about starting a women's leadership conference from scratch at your, at your previous institution. And I'm just so fascinated by that because,as you were talking about the challenges that are meeting physicians, I was thinking, well, wait, but she's in the leadership position. So she still felt those things and so I'm really curious about your views on physician leadership. And then also, how did you start this conference for women leaders? Just out of nowhere, that's so amazing.
[00:13:59] Dr. Sears, Guest: Yeah. Yeah. It's fascinating how I ended up in leadership. Was through my hatred of sodas. I hated sodas and no matter who I was talking to, whether it was a patient with fatty liver disease or reflux, or it was one of my kids' parents, I can't understand why I can't lose this weight or whatever. I was always worrying about sodas. So I wanted the sodas at a hospital in order to do that. I had to get the power players' attention. And so,what I did is I put together this group called the 10 Most Wanted, and I told the executive guys, specifically went after the men, the CEOs and all the leaders. And I said, I'm going to give you all your MBA, your mind, body and activity. So I played off of all the things that they wanted to hear about. And so this group of the 10 of us, we hired a trainer. We wrote down everything they ate, all this kind of stuff. And we all trained together for a half marathon.
[00:14:51] Dr. Gray, Host: You train the administrators? Wow!
[00:14:55] Dr. Sears, Guest: We all ran a half marathon together, which was amazing. And so at the end of the day, end of the six-month adventure that I took them all on some of them against their will. And one of 'em practically crawled across the table and said, I don't run. You're never going to make me run. Years later when you're interviewed by John Boyd, the CEO of our Children's Hospital, you say, John, what do you do for fun?
[00:15:14] He's I run marathons. I love it. And so who knew, so we started a madness thing there. But anyway, at the end of the day, the sodas were gone. All of the grand rounds lunches now had to be 50% fruits and vegetables, And so we got the key players to get it. I needed them to experience wellbeing.
[00:15:34] And to know that these choices, if we make it and their level of leadership, that they could, they could change everything that we do. And so it worked and they stopped. Oh my gosh. Dawn is a servant leader. She's gotten skin in the game. She's not trying to get anything other than to keep us around. So that we lost a bunch of us, lost a bunch of our participants, lost diabetes. They lost high blood pressure. All their meds went down 50%, it was amazing cause they lost, together 300 pounds. we did lose a knee and we lost a gallbladder, but that's okay. We won't talk too much about that. so it was a lot of fun. So anyway, I started being asked to get on all these leadership positions, oh, we've got this committee.
[00:16:11] Well, let's put Dawn on it. We've got this, let's put Dawn on it. I never took any leadership courses in my life, you know? And when they have all these leadership things in high school and college, I'm like, I'm not a leader. I'm just, I'm just staying out of trouble and doing my thing. Well, I ended up being a leader.
[00:16:26] And then, I went through the McCombs School of Business and SMU, little MBA programs and I got more support, more encouragement, and I got nominated for all these national women leadership opportunities. So I said, oh my gosh, I cannot keep this to myself. I have to give it to everybody.
[00:16:46] And then meanwhile, I'm climbing all these leadership ladders and people are asking me, Dawn, we've hired a new pulmonologist. Will you be her mentor? We hired a new rheumatologist. Will you be her mentor? And I'm like, whoa, I got three kids at home. I got nine fellows. I got 13 docs. I got my AAP.
[00:16:59] No, I said, how about all my colleagues? All of you are good mentors too. They're like, well, we didn't take a mentor class. We don't have a mentor certificate. Girl had you lived? Yes. You've been doing this for 15 years. You're a mentor. So what we did is we took 10 of us. We took the angry surgeon, sweet pediatrician, and the burnt-out pathologists.
[00:17:17] We sat around the room and we said, let's pick a date and let's find a speaker. We're going to talk about impression management, bragging about yourself in a way that's acceptable for women. and negotiations asked for what you're worth. So we picked these two topics. We did the conference in October, 2017.
[00:17:35] Dr. Gray, Host: And these are all women? These, these people that you're talking about.
[00:17:39] Dr. Sears, Guest: Yeah. Yeah. So we put it out there and we put it out to all 400 women physicians in the entire system. And then a couple of weeks later, my administrator called and said, where do we cap it? I said, what do you mean? You said 85 people have signed up. I'm like what?? And I was like, well, I guess we'll cap it at a hundred. I don’t know.
[00:17:58] Dr. Gray, Host: Whoa.
[00:17:59] Dr. Sears, Guest: This happens in October, 2017. We'll meet in October, 2017. Well, none of us saw that coming because our meeting was in July. We didn't know this was going to happen. So at this meeting I had asked the entire board of directors, mostly men, to ask all the chairs, mostly men, if they would provide the wine for the, after the conference of wine reception. And they looked around the room and went, this is where all the future leaders are. We thought y'all are busy, like at PTA's and soccer games, Oops, we miss. We miss the mark. Now we see it. After that the sky was the limit. The women were starting to get up there. They were interacting with people that they wouldn't normally interact with.
[00:18:42] A grant came out from the physicians foundation, and now I already had the data. I was being data driven. A lot of surveys. Pre-imposed cause I'm a scientist, I'm a researcher. I can't help myself. I collect all the data, and prove it. And, knowing in leadership and being at all the board of directors, I know that nothing drives anything without data and metrics.
[00:18:59] So I was already collecting that preemptively, I can't just say, I've got this nice program, please support it. Now they want to know how many . um, so I wrote the grant and then we went with the mass Hernan Index, all the things we got, the $150,000 to do. Two year longitudinal study, following 400 physicians.
[00:19:16] Ultimately there were over a thousand that participated either by taking the surveys and some of them actually came to the programs. And so at the end of the day we were able to show, we moved the metrics for engagement, burnout, and retention, all the things administration cares about the simple program of getting together every six months, just to bond, just to hear the stories, just to acknowledge each other.
[00:19:40] Oh yes. And get some leadership and skill building, but it was really the storytelling. It was really the bonding. That moved the needle because we also had coffee tops going on and we had virtual stuff going on and we had resources on websites and we asked each of them, which one had the most impact for you, your life burnout.
[00:19:59] And there was no doubt about it. It was this in-person every six months meeting. That impacted these, these, these women physicians. And at the end of every meeting, there were one or two, there was always weeping in the back saying, I thought I needed to quit. I thought I couldn't do this anymore. And for the first time I've been seen. I know I can do this, and I know that I can have control of my life again.
[00:20:24] And so when you do that and you see the impact that you've made. You can't help, but want to do it again and do it again and do it again. So we did that for all five or six conferences, and the feedback was universally positive. Other than when are you going to do it again? When are you going to do it again?
[00:20:41] When are you going to do it again? And so when I left the institution, I knew that this was my calling. This is my passion. This is the reason I get up in the morning. Anybody can remove a polyp or cure Hep-C, but not everybody can empower these people to know that they can have control of their life.
[00:20:59] And so I wanted more tools. So I got my training as an Executive Coach, and I spent time with lots of life coach school, trained coaches. And I also did the Christian Medical Dental Society. I'm in Texas. And so that's my culture down here. And so having all three of those and now being able to coach women physicians and specifically women leaders, leadership is lonely, no matter what.
[00:21:22] And then add the component of being a female leader and it's real lonely. So I'm able to be a sounding board for them and be a safe space for them. Let them get creative. Let them get silly. Let them get angry. I am okay. And so it's been great to be in that space and get them empowered to continue to move us in health care in the right direction.
[00:21:43] Dr. Gray, Host: Uh, it is absolutely amazing. That's I just love, love everything you said. I, I I'm, I'm still thinking about the Dr. Sears that you described, about, I'm just keeping my head down, doing my work, doing what I'm supposed to. And then there was just this one thing that really bothered you and you had no leadership aspirations at that time. You were just really annoyed with soda or trying to inspire people to be healthier. And I, that is such an amazing story. Tell me when in that journey, did you start seeing yourself as a leader?
[00:22:30] Dr. Sears, Guest: Hmm, that's a great question. I think it's when you turn around and see a bunch of people following you, despite whether you do or don't have a title, you go, oh, I'm leading. Oops. How did that happen? Maybe I should gain some skills, so I don't mess this up cause it's a privilege to be a leader. And so when the opportunity started blossoming for skill development, I was hungry for it and said, absolutely. I'm your girl. Yes. I will go to that thing. Yes. I will go to that conference. Yes. It was, I was doing a lot of yessing at that time to build myself up, at the same time as having three kids, including a child with a lot of special needs and other medical needs. So the balancing act, the circus music was going and doing the best I could.
[00:23:21] And then having to also build support from each other. Other physicians, mostly men. The culture I'm around, that would support me and go, oh, that's interesting. But it also started highlighting the great divide from what the life I lead versus someone else. And so I was asked to introduce The Women Leaders In Medicine Conference at a national meeting in front of a lot of the C-suite leaders of 20 of the biggest programs in the United States, it was a very exclusive group. And the organizer said, well, tell me about sexual harassment. Have you been sexually harassed? I'm like, that's like asking if I breathe. I'm like, what do you mean? Have I been sexually harassed? Of course. She was like, well, is that common? I'm like, oh my gosh, It's it's epidemic in medicine, are you kidding me?
[00:24:12] And so she said, well, you have to talk about that. I said, oh no, no, no, no, no, no. I'll talk about women in leadership, but I'm not touching that. She said, Dawn, if you don't touch that, that's like talking about burnout, but not talking about suicide. You have to talk about it. And I was like, oh, and so I had to go in deep and get the data, which of course we've all seen the data and it's horrible.
[00:24:35] There's no place that's worse in the STEM world than medicine, as far as gender discrimination, sexual harassment… not tech, not computer, engineering, it is medicine of it far outweighs them all. And then being able to share my personal stories, that people would be horrified when I started saying, you know, when I introduced a patient and there's wait, Dawn is your name well, where's the other med student named Dust?
[00:25:01] Y'all make a great stripper team. And you go, okay, I'm going to talk about the patient at 523 or not. And then going to national conferences and having, being the only woman in the room and gastroenterology and having the guy put his hand on my thigh after I just showed him pictures of my kid and he showed me pictures of his kid and saying, I'd really love to have drinks with you tonight, Dawn.
[00:25:22] I'm here to learn about fatty liver disease like that. , and then me actually being stocked by this guy and then changing my behavior. So I no longer went to those breakout sessions and I no longer brought home that information for my patients and for me to stand on the stage of grand rounds and share the reality of what I have experienced in my 23 years as a physician, that this is regular behavior.
[00:25:47] Dr. Sears, Guest: And even last week, one of my patients insisted on calling me Dawn the whole time. And I'm like, I'm almost 50. What do I need for you to call Dr. Sears? So I never asked to have to be a spokesperson for this, but when I did all the people who would come up to me afterwards, it would be a line. You know what it would look like 20 women who wanted to go, oh my gosh, I've been there girl. And thank you for giving us a voice. Thank you for residence. And so many of the men would be shocked. So then I was asked to do this talk and multiple other places, and I remember, distinctly an older white male coming up to me and said, “I hated your talk, which means I needed to hear that. Thank you for being here. I will do better, have a safe trip home.” I'm like, okay. You’re welcome. But opening up these discussions in a respectful way, that I'm not taking anything from the other gender, but can we just have dignity and respect? And can we acknowledge that we have not been treated well? And can we all make a commitment to stop this behavior and call it out when we see it and not introduce her as Jamie, but she is Dr. Smith, just like we introduced Kirk as Dr. Clark and not just Kirk. So having all of these important discussions now, as you know, there's something magical when you're turning 50, you're like, I'm going to tell it like it is. And so I've just put it, put it out there and then I'm empowering the younger generation to say these are not taboo topics anymore. It's okay to call out your senior mentor advisor or your attending. When he says something inappropriate to you and say, Hey, let's, let's not, let's not have this conversation like this. Can we go with different routes and empowering women to stand up for themselves? And just for their dignity and respect? No, no special treatment needed necessarily.
[00:27:43] Dr. Gray, Host: Wow. I'm so grateful that Dr. Sears reached out to me to come on the podcast and share all these experiences that she had in her amazing career. And I can't wait to see what she does next. And we are going to talk more in detail about this in next week's episode, so make sure you stay tuned and listen in next week. But just to give you a preview. She and two other physicians are putting out a conference. It's the first annual ACE conference for women physicians and ACE stands for three of my favorite characteristics, which is Authenticity, Courage, and Empowerment. And the name of the conferences Renew Your Life And Your Career. It takes place in San Antonio, Texas at a beautiful resort, and it will be April 28 to May 1st of 2022 this year, head over to the website, AuthenticPhysicians.com And check it out. Dr. Sears has a proven track record of putting out amazing life-changing conferences. I hope you'll consider attending. See you next week.
Dr. Weili Gray, Host
Thanks for listening. Make sure you hit subscribe so you don't miss another episode. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and give us a five star review so we can help more physicians dare to dream and create their most abundant lives. There's also exciting news at the Dare to Dream Physician. For those of you who wish to get clarity on your own why and get energized as you explore, envision and create your dream life. I'm so excited to announce that I'm taking on a limited number of one on one clients for life planning. To get the complete details and sign up for an exploration meeting. Go to my website, daretodreamphysician.com. I really look forward to working with you. And it would be such an honor and privilege for me to be able to help you create your life plan. I truly believe that life planning will transform your life and will give you that energy to pursue your dream life sooner than you ever imagine. See you next week