CSA Women’s History Month Spotlight: Phebe Ko, MD and Odmara Barreto Chang, MD, PhD

  • CSA Women in Anesthesia Committee
| Mar 09, 2023

In recognition of the many major accomplishments by women in anesthesia, CSA will be highlighting a variety of women leaders who practice throughout the state, bringing their diverse backgrounds and life perspectives into their work, taking purposeful steps to create pathways for mentorship and sponsorship, and helping support the clinical and research work that is being driven by an increasingly diverse field of anesthesiologists.

Below are two profiles on women making great things happen in anesthesia:

Phebe Ko, MDPhebe Ko, MD

  • Anesthesia Care Associates Medical Group in San Francisco

What was your pathway into medicine?

I attended college at Duke University, got my MD at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, did my residency at UCSF, and followed that up with a cardiac anesthesia fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I knew early on that I was interested in the pre-med track, so even in high school I did internships and job shadowing to get exposure to what that world was like. While I was in college, I stayed focused on my goals - both academic and athletic. I attended Duke on a full track and cross-country scholarship, and I learned early in my college years how to balance my time with running and my studies. My coach was strict with my team about avoiding distractions, staying healthy, and being disciplined with our academics. It was a really positive atmosphere to be in, and one that helped me learn time management and stay motivated. I have continued to train and race post-collegiately, with some of my most memorable achievements being racing in the 2008, 2012, and 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials all while balancing medical school, residency, and being a practicing anesthesiologist. 


What led you to private practice medicine instead of an academic position?

I loved the academic setting for residency and fellowship, but I always knew that private practice would be the right career fit for me. In the academic setting, your responsibilities are extended to include teaching, research, and writing papers. I enjoy being able to focus on patient care, and then come home and be able to have more free time to spend on my hobbies. Anesthesia is such a rewarding specialty; I am challenged by my work, and yet I have the bandwidth to still pursue other aspects of my life that fulfill me. I think that the academic setting is right for certain people, and not for others. My experience at Johns Hopkins was very research-oriented so I got to see what that path looks like, and I am glad that I had the knowledge to make the right choice for me and pursue the private practice route instead. 

Has your career experience matched your expectations so far?

It takes time to learn about career management even after you’re done with residency and fellowship – the type of lessons that are not about patient care but instead about how to navigate your path in a private practice setting, manage the group dynamics, and find your role. I learned it is better to fly under the radar for a while and figure out the subtleties in the group. I think I came out of the gate a bit too naive and wish I had been told to take a little more time to figure things out and blend in for a bit. My advice to newly practicing anesthesiologists who are entering the group setting is to view their role as a “bench player” at first – prove you’re safe, steady, and reliable (a “team player”) – then eventually you’ll become a “starting player.” Once you get into a good rhythm with your group, it’s really satisfying. It’s totally doable to be a doctor and to have many passions in your free time too. One other thing - private practice physicians should try to get more involved in medical societies, committees, and associations like CSA and ASA. I think there’s more emphasis on these societies among academic physicians, but that leaves out the private practice voice – and our careers and lifestyles are very much impacted by the legislative, regulatory, and administrative issues that these associations discuss and try to tackle. So I would definitely encourage more private practice anesthesiologists to pay attention and get involved where they can.

Odmara Barreto Chang, MD, PhDOdmara Barreto Chang, MD, PhD

  • Assistant Professor in Residence, University of California San Francisco, Department of Anesthesia & Perioperative Care
  • UCSF Latino Medical Student Association Co-Advisor
  • ASA Committee on Professional Diversity

How did you get inspired to go into medicine?

I grew up in Puerto Rico and was the first in my family to go to college and medical school. I didn’t have any doctors or scientists in my family as role models. But during undergrad, when I was at the University of Puerto Rico, I spent every summer coming to the U.S. to do research. I had amazing teachers in college and mentors in my research summer programs that encouraged me to pursue my dream of combining medicine and research. I went on to do the MD/PhD program at Stanford, then residency and a research fellowship at UCSF. I’ve stayed at UCSF to develop my interests in improving patient care through translational research. I love being able to think about new questions, test my predictions, and impact the way we practice medicine.

What are you working on?

As a physician-scientist, my research focuses on elderly patients who experience cognitive dysfunction after surgery. We know that it happens, but we are still trying to figure out why, what are the risks, and how to prevent it.  We are identifying patients who are experiencing long-term cognitive dysfunction and trying to tackle this problem. I think this is an exciting area of medicine because people live longer, and there are more surgeries taking place on older people who are more medically vulnerable – so we need to understand the impact of surgery and anesthetics. Understanding how we can most effectively optimize elderly patients prior to surgery and the risk factor for developing cognitive dysfunction after surgery will allow us to develop interventions to provide the best care for these vulnerable populations.

What was it like transitioning to the United States from Puerto Rico?

There were so many challenges and unknowns for me coming here from Puerto Rico and speaking a different first language – I think the transition is hard when you encounter a different culture, a different language, and you are a minority. You have to work hard and really want it. You need to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and to fail in order to achieve your goals.  I had kids during my training; it was challenging and required a lot of sacrifices. Now that I’m through school and training, it’s better. Being an anesthesiologist is a gratifying profession; we take care of patients in their most vulnerable times and this is a great responsibility but also a privilege.  For young women looking to go into medicine, I would encourage them to make sure that medicine motivates them and they feel passionate about it. Being a doctor is too hard if it’s just a job. You need to be passionate, and you also need to build a support network around you. For people early in their careers or in their studies, join associations and clubs to get exposure to many areas of medicine and learn from each other and keep each other motivated. You also build connections through these networks for ongoing collaboration.

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