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5 Questions for…Betty Suh-Burgmann

Kaiser Permanente physician researcher established new standardized approach for assessing ovarian cancer risk

Betty Suh-Burgmann’s family and friends have always known her to be someone who thinks through all her options and makes well-considered decisions. So, the last thing they expected during her last year of medical school was a call just a week before “The Match” — the national medical residency matching program — saying she had pulled out of the match for head and neck surgery, and that she would be pursuing a residency in obstetrics and gynecology.

Suh-Burgmann and her husband, Roland Burgmann, in Greece

“I don’t typically change horses midstream,” said Suh-Burgmann, MD, an adjunct investigator with the Division of Research and a gynecologic oncologist with The Permanente Medical Group (TPMG). “I had done so much research and had so many interviews to prepare for to enter the field of head and neck surgery, but in the 11th hour I had to admit to myself that while the field checked all the boxes of what I wanted in a career, I had made the decision with my head and not my heart.”

That last-minute decision was the first step on a path that would include a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco, (where she also attended medical school), a fellowship at Harvard University Medical School, and ultimately a career as a gynecologic oncology surgeon with TPMG, which she joined in 2000. She received TPMG’s Sidney R. Garfield Exceptional Contribution Award in 2022 for her groundbreaking efforts to create a standardized ultrasound reporting system for ovarian cancer risk assessment that prevents patients from having unnecessary surgery.

We spoke with Suh-Burgmann about her career and the importance of creating opportunities for physicians interested in research.

Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?

No. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and went to college at Cornell University thinking I wanted to be a bioengineer — but that changed after taking linear algebra my freshman year. So, instead, I majored in biochemistry. After graduating, I took a job in a research lab at the University of Colorado to help me determine if I should go to graduate school and get a PhD or go to medical school. That job allowed me to see that lab work wasn’t for me and led to my decision to go to medical school.

How did you become interested in surgery?

Before I started medical school, I thought I’d be a pediatric endocrinologist. I had done endocrine research at the University of Colorado, and I liked kids, but most importantly, I saw it as a field where I couldn’t hurt anyone. I was deathly afraid of emergencies, very risk adverse, and didn’t like the sight of blood. But once I was in medical school and saw my first surgery, I thought, this is way too fascinating. When I went into gynecologic oncology, people would ask me why I chose a field where I’d primarily be seeing people with cancer. I found that such an odd thing to say because — and I still feel this way today — I went into medicine because I wanted to take care of people who were sick and who may not have good outcomes, and who I can really help.

You were in the first class of the Physician Researcher Program at DOR. What led you to apply?

Suh-Burgmann fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana.

When I joined Kaiser Permanente, I knew I wanted to also do research. But at the time, the path toward research was less clear. The year before the Physician Researcher Program was started, Doug Corley, a DOR research scientist and a TPMG gastroenterologist, and I both won TPMG’s Morris F. Collen Research Award. Winners are invited to give a presentation, and Doug and I both focused on why it was important for TPMG to tap into the talent among our physicians who are interested in research. Those presentations led to Doug being asked to oversee a physician researcher program that would be supported by DOR and TPMG. I applied because KPNC had adopted the new standardized reporting system I had developed, and I wanted to analyze its impact. Now I’m part of the newly established TPMG Women’s Health Research Steering Committee, where I can help mentor other physicians interested in conducting research.

What do you tell medical students who are trying to decide what field to go into?

Before you choose a field, you should know what kind of person you are. For me, it’s important to feel a tangible sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, and that’s how I feel after I’ve done surgeries. In medical school, one of the big challenges is to learn about yourself. You are continually moving through 6-week rotations that reward different character traits and you can end up feeling — or at least I did — like you could be anything. So, you need to figure out what you really enjoy and what feels most authentic to who you are.

What do you do in your free time?

I love to ski — though I am not as aggressive as I used to be — and go hiking with my dog. I also really enjoy fly fishing. My main hobby is classical piano. I’m trying to learn all Chopin’s nocturnes for solo piano. There are 21 and I’ve learned 16. Unfortunately, the last 5 are the ones I don’t really like. 

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