Physician Builds Career by Standing Her Ground

If nothing else, Clair Callan, MD, is both flexible and determined. Those traits have served her well as she's had to make some difficult choices during her professional career. And in her new memoir, "Standing My Ground," Callan, who today is vice president of science, quality, and public health standards for the American Medical Association, shares her journey of overcoming obstacles and cracking the glass ceiling in becoming a female physician.

If nothing else, Clair Callan, MD, is both flexible and determined. Those traits have served her well as she’s had to make some difficult choices during her professional career. And in her new memoir, “Standing My Ground,” Callan, who today is vice president of science, quality, and public health standards for the American Medical Association, shares her journey of overcoming obstacles and cracking the glass ceiling in becoming a female physician.

“I often had to really stand up and argue, fight for my position that I felt was absolutely the correct one,” Callan says. “And it wasn’t easy, especially being one of the few women in the management ranks of a large pharmaceutical company.”

But Callan stood her ground.

A mother’s influence

Callan explains that, at least to some extent, seeing her mother graduate from medical school influenced her decision for a career in medicine. An anesthesiologist, Callan’s mother was a trailblazer at a time when female medical students were few and far between. Yet her mother rarely spoke about the challenges she faced.

“Her attitude was basically that you just had to deal with the situation and get things done,” Callan recalls. “She was just very supportive of the surgeons she worked with—even if that meant being called in at 5 in the evening or on Saturday or Sunday for an emergency that really wasn’t an emergency. It was just to suit [the surgeons’] schedules.”

But that, too, had an impact on Callan as her career progressed. With a young family including 4 children, Callan made a difficult decision to give up the hands-on practice of medicine.

“I saw how my going to work, especially to do emergencies, was affecting them, and I thought back to when I was their age and really resented my mother going off when she was supposed to take me shopping,” Callan says. “I didn’t want that for them. I decided I could drop out and go back later when they were older.”

Falling into things

Callan gave up her clinical practice, but soon found that, with her children in school, she had time on her hands. She became involved in community activities. It was then that a photographer for the town newspaper told her, “You give so much to the community, you really don’t take anything for yourself.” Callan decided it was time to take something back; that she needed to find a situation where she could get reimbursed for all that she was doing.

“That led me to a supposedly part-time job, three half-days a week, with the State of Connecticut doing disability determinations,” Callan says. “I really enjoyed it, and found that I could probably make some significant contribution if I wanted to get more involved.”

That’s exactly what happened. She basically assumed the role of medical director for the state’s Medicaid program. Working with a supportive boss, they were able to expand some programs and make them available to Medicaid recipients, especially those who were developmentally disabled.

“Seeing the difference in those people who took part in workshops where they were fully occupied during the day, it made such a difference to their outlook,” Callan recalls. “That was very satisfying.”

In 1985, Callan became the director of medical affairs for Abbott Laboratories where she did critical research on new anesthesia products. The team she led completed the global development of a new drug, Sevoflurane, within 2 years. But the road to that success was not smoothly paved.

“I really had to stand up and fight for what I believed,” Callan says. “People who didn’t always understand the issues would try to get rid of some of the things I was trying to do on the medical side. And I was up against a very strong competitor who did everything he could to make sure the FDA never approved that drug. It was a great learning experience, and it was great when we succeeded despite everybody expecting we would fail.”

That and other experiences were what prompted Callan to write “Standing My Ground.” With family scattered from coast to coast, she wanted to make sure her grandchildren could learn who she was and what she had accomplished during her medical career.

“I think I’ve made significant contributions, and I wanted to get all of it down on paper,” she explains. “I’ve learned that you can always find someone who is willing to come forward and help you achieve whatever your goal is. Maybe [reading the book] would help some other people who were trying to stand their ground in a particular situation.”

Easier today?

Callan says that she doesn’t necessarily think it’s easier today for female physicians to break through that glass ceiling, but she has noticed positive changes. One of them is the ability for women to switch from one specialty to another—maybe even easier than for men.

“That’s interesting in itself,” she says.

What’s also interesting is that, despite all the travel she did, in particular while employed by Abbott Laboratories, Callan still enjoys traveling—albeit for pleasure, not for business.

“I can stop and really look at where I am, rather than rushing from the airport to the hotel and back to the airport with no time in between to see where I had been,” she explains. “Definitely more enjoyable.”

Looking back on her career, Callan says the most rewarding part has been implementing significant programs that today benefit both patients and physicians. In particular, she points to the physicians consortium for performance improvement she helped develop with the AMA. The goal was to define core measures that, when applied to treating patients, would ensure they were receiving the best care they could from their physicians.

“It was a real challenge selling it to physicians,” she recalls. “But today it has become an essential part of their practice, because the government and other payers have picked up on it. That was very rewarding.”