Celebrating Women Physicians: An Interview with Dr. Jeanna Knoble

February 3 is National Women Physicians Day, celebrating women’s contributions to healthcare as well as the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.

The impact of women on the healthcare industry continues to grow — according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the number of women working in healthcare full-time and year-round jumped from 5 million in 2000 to 9 million in 2019. And that number is expected to continue growing as more and more women enroll in medical school.

To celebrate National Women Physicians Day, we spoke with Jeanna Knoble, M.D., a medical oncologist at Zangmeister Cancer Center who was also recently elected as the practice’s managing partner. She is also co-medical director of the breast cancer program at Mount Carmel Health System.

At Zangmeister, Dr. Knoble treats all cancer and blood disorders, but does have a special focus on breast cancer, as well as blood clotting abnormalities. She is also active in the practice’s research program and serves as the principal investigator of several active trials.

Dr. Knoble graduated from Miami University — summa cum laude with a B.A. in Microbiology — and received her medical degree from The Ohio State University Department of Medicine and Public Health. Following her residency at The Ohio State University Medical Center, she completed a fellowship in hematology and oncology at the University of Virginia Health System.

In this interview, Dr. Knoble talks about what led her to oncology, what advice she has for women just starting or considering a career in healthcare and what National Women Physicians Day means to her.

What led you to a career in healthcare? Was oncology always your chosen discipline?

I always found science so fascinating, but I am also kind of a “people person.” I felt like medicine merged the two because you can apply science every day directly to people’s lives. You are guiding and helping patients with the proven principles of science and improvements in care brought by clinical research.  For me, medicine was the perfect confluence of science and helping people.

I didn’t know until my residency that I would fall in love with oncology. There’s a lot of cutting-edge science contributing to the advancement of patient care in oncology. But…the patients are what led me to pursue oncology. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It’s life-threatening and it can happen to anyone, changing lives in an instant. Taking care of cancer patients is motivating and humbling at the same time. Cancer patients teach you a new perspective on life.

Along with interacting with patients, what are some of the other things you love about your job and working in oncology?

Again, it gets back to the science and the research and the fact that we are seeing progress in real time.  All of medicine is advancing, but in oncology our treatments have really evolved, even since I started practicing 10 years ago. I love the research end of it, and we have a real chance to participate in research here at Zangmeister.

I also find purpose in educating patients about what their cancer means for them so we can develop realistic goals of care and they can prioritize what is most important in their lives.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

For me it isn’t really degrees or awards — the most important things are knowing you’ve made a difference, that you’re helping people do the right thing in a difficult situation and you’re standing up for people who need to be stood up for, whether it’s a patient or a co-worker. That’s what really makes me want to get up in the morning and keep doing what I’m doing.

I am also proud of the fact my colleagues trust me to represent them as a part of our leadership team here at the Zangmeister Center and also with our multidisciplinary cancer program. It means a lot to be trusted with the opportunity to improve the future for our patients, staff, and my fellow clinicians.

What would you tell other women who are just starting a career in healthcare or oncology?

I love mentoring young women and it is something I am very passionate about. The most important thing I can do is encourage them and give them confidence. I think sometimes women turn away from a career in healthcare because they don’t think they can handle the hard work and the pressure, or don’t think it’s possible to have a demanding career and also raise a family. I don’t have children myself, but many of my female comrades in medicine do. We need to adapt and accommodate that and let women know, “You can do this, you can be a part of this.”

Women make great oncologists — and great physicians in general — because they have unique insight, communication skills, and empathy when it comes to patients. Not more empathy than men, but empathy from a different perspective.  There have been studies that found that women physicians had lower mortality rates and fewer patient readmissions. Many patients have told me, “I just feel more comfortable asking questions and being completely honest with women.”

You mentioned taking pride in mentoring younger women. Who were some of your mentors?

There are several. One who comes to mind is Dr. Manisha Shah, whom I met on my oncology rotation as a second-year resident at Ohio State. She was an independent, strong woman who was very confident and caring. She not only had passion for the research trials she was leading, but equal compassion for each of her patients. Both my intern and I chose a career path in oncology after working with her that month.

At the University of Virginia, our fellowship director, Gail B. Macik, had a very similar personality. She inspired you to be confident and keep moving forward. I was very fortunate to have women like these in my life who have been such great mentors.

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in your journey?

Helping patients develop realistic expectations while maintaining some hope and optimism can be one the most difficult challenges, particularly when delivering bad news. It is so important for patients to understand what likely lies ahead, but also find hope in the journey.

Another challenge in oncology is keeping up to date with all the research advancements in care. The field is constantly evolving — and evolving quickly. I not only have to be up on breast oncology, which is an area I focus on, but also on all other subspecialties in oncology and benign blood disorders. It is a wonderful thing that we’re getting more and more therapies out there — but being knowledgeable on all of them can be a challenge.

For women physicians in general, I think maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult. My hat goes off to women that are trying to raise a family and advance their career because it is a huge challenge for them. It’s a challenge for young fathers as well, but it’s almost always more so for women because of the inherent and societal role that motherhood entails.

Studies have shown that only about 34% of oncologists are women. What can the healthcare industry do to help increase that number?

I read where there is now a 50-50 split of men and women in medical school. So hopefully as those numbers go up, the number of women oncologists will go up too. However, there are challenges in oncology and other subspecialties, especially when it comes to women deciding when they are finished with their residency if they want to go out and work or do another three years of a fellowship.

Fellowship programs often require you to move somewhere else and require long hours away from home. For women who want to start a family, that can be a deterrent. I think we need to add more flexibility to our training and give women more time [to complete it] while making sure they maintain integrity and the necessary experience. It’s also important for women to know, even at a young age, that they can have options and flexibility in their education and careers — that they can have a family and still have a career in healthcare and oncology. It is a continued challenge but it is something we’re working on.

What does National Women Physicians Day mean to you?

It means that we are recognizing that women are very important in healthcare and bring a unique perspective and distinct qualities. Most women have faced and continue to face additional challenges and obstacles through training and as attending physicians. It is important to recognize this and work to prevent this from hindering success. This is also true in other professions and with other disparities.

I also think it points out that qualified women need to be a part of leadership in healthcare. The workforce in healthcare is approximately 80% women.  The majority of our patients’ caregivers are women. Having women actively involved in crucial decision making is essential for any health care organization to reach its full potential. Our voices need to be heard and we deserve a seat at any important table.