Developing a Successful Plastic Surgery Interest Group (PSIG)

Plastic and Reconstructive surgery is one of the smallest and most competitive fields in the house of medicine. For interested medical students, the barriers to entry may seem gargantuan; yet for many others, the idea of plastic surgery is filled with misconceptions and limited understandings of the scope of our field. In this blog post, medical students from around the country share their experiences and perspectives as they develop “Plastic Surgery Interest Groups” at their respective medical schools. These groups serve to foster education, opportunities, and collaboration among medical students exploring the field of plastic surgery in order to enhance the pipeline of excellent medical students who ultimately become plastic surgeons.
Rajendra Sawh-Martinez, MD

by Brielle Weinstein, Alex Lin, Alex Sun, and Robin Wu

Plastic surgery residency continues to be one of the most competitive specialties with increasing standards for board scores, research experiences, and accolades. With this high quality applicant pool, peer support and mentoring is essential to guide medical students into the specialty. Faculty and residents have tremendous experience with the process and the effects of their wisdom cannot be underestimated. The medical school curriculum at each institution is different, however, and often requires an upper level student or alumnus to navigate. In this post we share our experiences in developing separate Plastic Surgery Interest Groups, in order to start the conversation with other students around the country in order to turn our interests into successful residency matches and careers as plastic surgeons.

Our Perspectives Starting Out:

Brielle Weinstein – Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC)
I am a student of the class of 2016 at the Medical University of South Carolina. In April of my third year, students in the class of 2017 began to approach me for advice in matching into integrated plastic surgery. Of course at that point I had little knowledge to impart on them and realized quickly that we needed an interest group to circulate ideas, share experiences, and learn more about plastic surgery. One of the other students, Donna Fewell, was integral in the process and deserves much of the credit for getting the group off the ground. We met with a faculty advisor, Dr. Lance Tavana, and began to have spring meetings and secured funding for the 2015-2016 academic year. Funding will be used for lunch (med students never turn down free Panera!) and materials for workshops.

Thus far, we have had three meetings, participated in campus philanthropy events, coordinated multiple students to research projects and shared countless experiences. Our meetings included an initial membership meeting, a post-match talk with Becky Knackstedt, class of 2015, who matched at Cleveland Clinic, and a seminar on craniosynostosis with Dr. Jason Ulm. We are planning a splinting workshop for the winter and hope to have a suture lab next spring. In December, we will have a meeting with the current third year students to plan applying for away rotations and starting personal statements.

Alex Lin – Frank H. Netter School of Medicine
I am currently a second year medical student at Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine. I initially learned about the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery through my research experience prior to medical school. During my first year, I was looking forward to learning more about the field as a medical student, but I discovered that without an established plastic surgery interest group, it was difficult to connect with other students interested in PRS. With a relatively small inaugural class of only 60, and 90 in my own class, the number of students interested in pursuing plastic and reconstructive surgery is proportionately small, which has led to difficulty in attaining the minimum number of participants needed for group recognition and funding from the school. This has been the greatest challenge in coordinating a plastic surgery interest group at my institution.

Nevertheless, my classmates and I have become engaged in the Surgery Interest Group, where we continue to push for increased interest for PRS. Through the Surgery Interest Group, we can bring together students with varied surgical interests into one cohesive whole to learn about plastic surgery in a more comprehensive way. In this setting, we have had the opportunity to engage in suturing workshops, hear guest lecturers speak about plastic surgery, and attend networking events with surgeons throughout Connecticut. While the interest group is not PRS-specific, we have been able to set up more opportunities for students to learn about PRS. For example, our shadowing program has matched students with Dr. David Yan, the chief of plastic surgery at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, allowing for the opportunity to shadow him in the operating room or wound clinic. Additionally, we have found this cohesive group to be a unique way for students interested in plastic surgery to learn about the other surgical specialties and how a plastic surgeon might collaborate with other surgeons in reconstructive procedures.

Alex Sun, Yale School of Medicine
I’m currently an MS3 at the Yale School of Medicine. Coming into medical school, I was interested in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery but I found that it was difficult to get advice from older students on how to get involved. It was through the grapevine that I heard about an upperclassman medical student who was planning on matching into PRS, and I was able to meet with him to start asking my questions.

From this experience, two classmates and I decided that there should be a more formal and streamlined avenue by which medical students could learn about and get involved with the section. I emailed plastic surgery interest groups at a few other schools to ask for advice on starting a group, but received no responses. Fortunately, around this time, one of the PGY5’s (Anup Patel) reached out to us fully supporting the formation of an interest group. With his help, we figured out goals for our group and started the process of formalizing our presence at Yale. Our faculty advisor, Dr. John Persing, was very enthusiastic about the group; additionally, we were able to secure funding from the School of Medicine for our first event in the Spring of 2014: a post-match panel with fourth-year students.

During the academic year of 2015 – 2016, the chief resident and our faculty advisor were indispensable in helping us plan shadowing opportunities and also getting students from Yale to attend Medical Students Day at Plastic Surgery: The Meeting 2014. Currently, our interest group helps connect medical students to the section. Our close liaison allows medical students to attend grand rounds, visiting professor dinners, and meetings such as the section’s annual Research Meeting, and also alerts students about opportunities such as research projects and conferences.

Robin Wu – Yale School of Medicine
I am an MS2 at Yale School of Medicine. I picked up the PRSIG leadership role after Alex Sun started the group a year prior. As Alex had graciously already put everything in motion, the workload for my year was mostly maintaining the events run last year as well as adding a couple of our own such as a research meet and greet. The biggest issue for my year was getting incoming first years to sign up. The field of plastic surgery, admittedly, comes with some negative connotations. Holding sign ups for this group at a school-wide activities fair made it difficult for us to show the incoming students the diversity of plastic surgery. However, we find that over time, through our ongoing meetings and workshops, students begin to gather a better understanding of the field and become excited about tremendous breadth and impact that plastic surgery has on patient’s lives.

Overcoming Limited Numbers:

One of the major obstacles we had to starting the interest group was the number of students who would potentially be members. MUSC thus far has only ever matched four individuals into integrated plastic surgery. To combat this, we plan to include other interest groups in our seminars and workshops such as neurosurgery group at the craniosynostosis talk or orthopedics at the splinting workshop. Additionally, we encourage the first and second year students to consider plastic surgery as a potential specialty. We use a similar strategy at Netter SOM to increase the sheer number of students exposed to plastic surgery. Using the platform of the school’s Surgery Interest Group, which has more than 50 members, we have been able to bring plastic and reconstructive surgery to a larger group of students who have minimal previous exposure to this field. We have also tried to take advantage of the inter-professional environment at our school by inviting nurses, physician assistants, and physical and occupational therapist to some of our events. Our goal is to introduce plastic surgery to as many students as possible through multiple healthcare disciplines. At Yale SOM, we had to find the niche that PRSIG could fill, and our advisor firmly believed that we should not just echo what other groups did. For example, several surgical interest groups at Yale offer suturing workshops. For us, our vision is for medical students to have opportunities to interact personally with faculty members, whether through dinners, research meetings, or grand rounds.

Getting the interest groups going are only possible because the departments have been supportive and encouraging. The faculty and residents are eager to help students and create an environment for us to foster the group. If you are a student looking to start a group at your school, feel free to email us at weinsteb@musc.edu, Alex.Lin@quinnipiac.edu, alex.sun@yale.edu and robin.wu@yale.edu.

Good luck!

The Primary Goals of a PSIG:

1. Teach students about plastic surgery with seminars and hands-on workshops. The more I learn about plastic surgery, the more I am confronted with the diversity of the field. We want students to appreciate this diversity and feel comfortable talking about some of the more common pathologies and procedures.

2. Allow students to understand the full spectrum of plastic surgery, including hand surgery, craniofacial surgery, limb salvage, burn reconstruction, and plastic surgery in global health. A PSIG is integral in exposing students to these diverse topics.

3. Review the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Journal through monthly journal clubs, review landmark articles, CME overview articles, special topic discussions, and social media interaction.

A. New for 2016, PRS (@PRSJournal) has launched a twitter journal club (#PRSJournalClub) highlighting a global twitter discussion with the authors! There are also PRS Journal Club Podcasts for those on the go!

4. Guide third year students through the plastic surgery rotation and elective choices. As medical students consider elective rotation options, there may be specific factors in scheduling related fields and outside rotations around a plastic surgery rotation.

5. Coordinate students for research projects. Many residency programs have monthly or weekly research meetings to discuss the current stage of all research projects. A PSIG can facilitate medical student participation. Related goals may include developing focused tasks, such as writing an IRB, literature search, presentation of key topics, or critically review PRS journal articles.

A. The average student who matched into integrated plastics in 2014 has 12.5 abstracts, publications and presentationsi. It is important that we help each other out as this type of productivity requires collaboration.

6. Navigate through the away rotation/VSAS process and then ERAS/interviews for plastic surgery. These processes require meticulous planning and decisions are often based on personal experiences of your peers, residents and faculty. Creating institutional memory and advice from year to year will hopefully reduce the number of pitfalls and common mistakes that occur.

7. Review and maintain a list of away rotations. For students from schools with an independent program or no plastic surgery program at all, it becomes vital to complete away rotations and perform well.

A. 43% of students match at a program where they did an away rotation and 28% match at their home institutionii. Without a home program for integrated pathway, the away rotation experience becomes critically
important.

Quick Tips:
• Set an event schedule or list that can be given out to all members at the beginning of the year.

• Increase faculty involvement as they can give good advice on different successful paths towards plastics.

• Plastic Surgery residents are also great resources for research and workshops.

• Hands on activities such as suture workshops and shadowing opportunities are always well attended.

• People – even medical students – are sometimes predisposed to think Plastic Surgery is purely for aesthetics and money. You can change their minds!

• Bring food to meetings!

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