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Watson speaker champions inclusion as key to success

Dr. Julie A. Freischlag speaking at lectern
Dr. Julie Freischlag was the guest speaker at the 2018 Watson Award Presentation and Lecture.

This story was originally posted on Center Times Plus on Dec. 17, 2018.


As the first woman to be appointed Chair of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine – and the first female Chair at that institution overall – Dr. Julie A. Freischlag knows firsthand the challenges of building a workplace culture that embraces diversity.

“Diversity, to me, is so important because it makes me smarter, it makes what I’m doing better, and it actually solves problems,” said Dr. Freischlag, keynote speaker at the Patricia and William L. Watson Jr., M.D. Award for Excellence in Clinical Medicine presentation event on Dec. 6. “Benjamin Franklin said, ‘If everyone is thinking alike, no one is thinking.’ The hardest thing as a leader is getting feedback from those who might be worried how you’ll react. So be sure to make a safe space for that feedback.” 

Dr. Freischlag joined Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in 2017 as Chief Executive Officer, became the Interim Dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine in July 2017, and was appointed permanent Dean in February. As CEO and Dean, she has overall responsibility for the Medical Center’s clinical, academic, and innovation enterprises and its annual operating budget of $3.3 billion. 

Along with her service in various national and international leadership roles, she has mentored students, residents, and early career faculty. She is a frequent speaker on topics ranging from her expertise in vascular diseases to teamwork, patient safety, leadership, work-life balance, and women succeeding in health professions. 

Dr. Freischlag, who spoke on “Inclusion at All Levels,” began her remarks with a quote from Maya Angelou: “If you know better, do better.” From there, she shared what she learned from her experiences in academic medicine, recounting times when she was passed over for positions because she was a woman. She eventually was appointed Chair of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where she stayed for 11 years. 

“It was an interesting time for everyone,” Dr. Freischlag said. “My husband stopped working to raise our 7-year-old son. At one point, my son asked me if boys can be surgeons, too. In his world, only mothers were surgeons.” 

She recalled when a surgeon at Johns Hopkins asked permission to operate on his own wife. Dr. Freischlag asked eight members of her team their thoughts on the ethics – and got eight different answers. 

“We need to celebrate and elevate these wonderful diverse parts of us,” Dr. Freischlag said. “We see this now in the operating room. Our teams are the ones that make us efficient, great doctors, and diversity works to your advantage in that space.”

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