A record-breaking Malaysian student and graduate of the prestigious University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, surgeon Dr. Amalina Bakri has still faced her fair share of discrimination in the medical field. We talked to her about the importance of increasing female representation in the profession, and how she’s using her social media presence (with over 1 million followers across all channels) as a force for good.
What made you want to pursue a career in medicine?
As a child, I always wanted to become a doctor, so I can’t really remember exactly when I decided to study medicine, but my mom always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, and to become a doctor and help people. I knew that I wanted a career that could allow me to make a difference, so that’s why I chose this path as a doctor.
Growing up, my mom was a tiger mom who raised me all by herself. I don’t really come from a wealthy family; we were middle class — my mom was a teacher. She would always encourage me to prioritize education. For me, education was my way to pursue my dreams and to get to where I wanted to be.
That’s why, at 17, I became the top student in Malaysia based on my national exam. I then got a scholarship from the Central Bank of Malaysia and then went to the U.K. Now I’m here working as a surgeon in London.
It’s been a tough journey with a lot of ups and downs, but I suppose my mom sort of made me who I am today. She’s a very an independent and ambitious woman. She really encouraged me to always pursue my dreams and to get out of my comfort zone, and to just be out there and become the best that I can be in — both in academia as well as in my career.
How much female representation do you see in the medical profession?
To be honest with you, especially in surgery, there aren’t that many women in the United Kingdom. I’m sure that’s the same in other parts of the world, and in the United States. From my experience, I think based on the statistics in 1991, at the time, only 3% of consultant or attending surgeons were women, and then that increased to about 15% in 2022, but it’s still a very low number.
We know that the number of women entering medical school is over 60%. Once you finish medical school and you go through training to become a surgeon, for example, many female surgeons and training residents tend to drop out for lots of reasons.
Many women want to have families and children, and they find it difficult to work in any specialty, especially surgery. You have to work long hours and be on-call most of the time, and be away from home in the middle of the night. Plus, it’s a very stressful specialty — many women in surgery have experienced harassment, either from colleagues, supervisors, or even patients.
I think there are more women entering surgery now, but it’s still a very low number. There’s a significant gap between the number of women who enter training, and those who end up becoming a consultant or working in a senior position. So, there are lots of things that needs to be done to try to improve the numbers.
How can we increase a female presence in surgery?
One thing we can do is provide opportunities for women to do part-time jobs. We just want the field to be more compatible with having children and having a family. Make it a better work-life balance. A lot of women in surgery don’t want to be seen as weak because they can’t handle the pressure of balancing family and career. Providing part-time opportunities helps solve that.
Another thing is to have support groups. With the right network, young women entering surgical training can have older female surgeons create a healthy environment for them to become doctors or surgeons.
Another thing is a lot of women face is gender-based harassment. From my own experience, a couple of years ago when I was at the beginning of my surgical training residency, I remember operating overnight on a man in his 70s. I spoke to him about what happened in the surgery, and for some reason, he thought that I was a medical student or a nurse. So, after spending 10-15 minutes talking about what happened, I emphasized that I was the surgeon for the operation. I suppose there was an unconscious bias that caused him to think I wasn’t the surgeon.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding in terms of gender-based roles. Older patients are probably not used to having a female Asian woman surgeon, especially because I probably look very young for my age.
What inspired you to build such a large social media presence and following?
I started my social media platforms in 2017 to communicate what I’m passionate about: an evidence-based approach to medicine, because I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there. One of my colleagues actually suggested that it would be a good idea for me to create medical awareness online, because I love to do that anyways.
Initially, I was tweeting about fighting pseudo-scientific products endorsed by celebrities. It grew really quickly, then I moved on to Instagram, then to TikTok during the COVID pandemic, then to YouTube recently, so now I have over a million followers across all platforms.
I now create videos to provide education about genomic medicine, and how we can encourage people to participate in research and clinical trials, especially from a diverse community background. It’s to empower people to make informed decisions about their health and give people quick, reliable information as a healthcare professional.
What is your favorite thing you’ve done on social media?
The best part of being on social media is the crowdfunding campaign that I organized for a baby in Malaysia with a germ cell tumor. At the time, in Malaysia, doctors didn’t have the expertise to cure the cancer there. And I found this out from Instagram because my followers were messaging me.
I managed to get in contact with the baby’s family, and they gave me their medical records. I spoke to my colleagues here in London and was able to organize a successful surgery for the baby. Even the Prime Minister of Malaysia came to visit me in London, with the surgical team. The whole thing was really special to me, because I was able to do great things, wonderful things, for people through social media.