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Harnessing social media to champion gender equality in surgery – Mr. Olivier Alexandre Branford, Reconstructive Plastic Surgeon at The Royal Marsden Hospital in London


Mr. Olivier Branford is a plastic surgeon working in breast reconstruction at The Royal Marsden, a specialist cancer treatment hospital in London. He is an active social media user and a champion of gender equality in surgery.

Mr Olivier Branford
Mr. Olivier Branford

“…Many of the surgeons that I admire the most happen to be women, they are represented by every generation of women, and they are an inspiration to us all. The fact that that their talent is matched by their generosity to their male colleagues sets a real example for us all to follow…”

The importance of equality of opportunity in medicine

I trained at Trinity College Cambridge, where I obtained my Master of Arts in Natural Sciences in the History and Philosophy of Science in Medicine, which gave me a strong background in evidence-based medicine. I then embarked on my clinical studies at The Royal Free Hospital in London, where I received the William Marsden Scholarship for academic achievement.

The London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women, founded in 1874
The London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women, founded in 1874

The Royal Free Hospital was the first teaching hospital in London to admit women for training, so it was a privilege for me to train there as a doctor because equality of opportunity in medicine has always been of great importance to me.

After qualifying I sat my MRCS surgical exams, becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. I then obtained my Ph.D. thesis in Tissue Engineering in Plastic Surgery, a research fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons of England and my training number in plastic surgery, working in high volume London teaching hospitals, such as The Royal Free Hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Charing Cross Hospital, and St Mary’s Hospital in London.

Specialising in reconstructive work related to women’s health

I obtained fellowships in complex limb reconstruction and two fellowships in microsurgery; one in breast surgery, along with head and neck cancer reconstruction at Imperial College Healthcare Trust and another at the Royal Marsden Hospital, mainly undertaking reconstructive work related to women’s health – in breast and gynaecological cancer reconstruction.

I was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Plastic Surgery, the consultant level plastic surgery examination, in 2014. I currently work in a consultant role at The Royal Marsden Hospital, predominantly doing breast cancer microsurgical reconstruction. It is a great privilege for me to be a part of women’s cancer journey by helping and supporting them to regain confidence through reconstruction.

Moving things forward for everybody in plastic surgery

I am very passionate about what I do and do my best to help move things forward for all colleagues and patients within plastic surgery, having published 60 peer-reviewed scientific articles to date and a number of book chapters. I am also associate editor at PRS Global Open – the most read open access plastic surgery journal in the world. By being free-to-access we publish articles that everyone can read, getting the truth about plastic surgery out of libraries for all to see. I am also a scientific peer reviewer for 14 other plastic surgery and related scientific journals.

Making a positive change to the lives of women with cancer

I have wanted to be a plastic surgeon for as long as I remember. I have a passion for breast cancer surgery as it is a combination of technical skill (the microsurgery), art (obtaining a natural result for women – I have always had a keen interest in art and study it still to obtain natural results) and science through innovation. That appealed to all my interests, and I find it enormously rewarding to make a positive change to women’s lives at what it such a turbulent time for them after a cancer diagnosis.

My career choice appeals to me as plastic surgery is dependent on quality results: I have performed 45 microsurgical breast reconstructions using women’s own tissue over the last year and all have been successful – this gives women great confidence in their cancer journey.

Harnessing the power of social media

While my main work is clinical and academic, I have an interest in how social media can be used to educate and engage with the public. The digital impact of social media can be enormous – in the last four weeks my posts have been seen by 2 million people. On average each person has 500 followers so you can imagine the exponential reach!

To this end, a year ago I started promoting the hashtag #PlasticSurgery to enable the public to find reliable sources of information. The hashtag has had 2.4 billion views over the last 12 months and is the most trending healthcare hashtag in the world! I am enormously proud! It has led to other medical subspecialties replicating our example, which has to be good for patients. My article about this will be published in December 2016 in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery journal. The article is simply called #PlasticSurgery.

I am lucky enough to have gained almost 100,000 followers on Twitter alone, mainly by posting about evidence-based plastic surgery. I want to help people find out the truth about plastic surgery and how to find the real plastic surgeons: I started getting involved in order to combat self-promotion and tabloid misinformation to support the public in their choices. I want to use the following I’ve built to have a positive influence.

I have actively supported the fantastic hashtag #ILookLikeASurgeon, which has gone viral, and was founded by the fantastic academic surgeon Dr. Heather Logge – Twitter handle @LoggheMD. The aim was to break gender stereotypes in surgery and show the human side of surgeons. I founded the hashtag #ILookLikeAPlasticSurgeon to the same end.

A shift away from the established patriarchy in plastic surgery

In my previous Womanthology article I spoke about “out-of-date dinosaurs” in surgery who don’t understand the need for gender equality. From my most recent conversations with surgeons who are women they certainly do say that the majority of these are from an older generation and are slowly becoming extinct.

Olivier Branford
Olivier with colleagues Dr. Smita Ramanadham (@SRamanadhamMD) and Dr. Minas Chrysopoulo (@mchrysopoulo)

I previously stated that we should “move round dinosaurs rather than confront them,” but having discussed this further with more female colleagues I have revised my view – in contrast, often the best approach can be to engage positively with them. It is important for male champions to help to try to educate those that are senior to them.

As surgery becomes more open there is a shift away from the established patriarchy and I love social media for this – it is very democratic and a real leveller. Thankfully the most outspoken surgeons with digital impact are very supportive and outspoken about gender equality, be they women or men. ‘Followers’ vote with their feet; bigoted views quickly lead to blocking and unfollowing. In my view there is little tolerance for ignorance, arrogance or misogyny on social media and that is a wonderful thing!

How male surgeons can champion female colleagues

Surgical male champions can support female colleagues in a number of ways. They can:

  • Advocate for more women surgeons
  • Help to ensure equal opportunities
  • Mentor women surgeons in a supportive way that addresses their mentees’ best interests rather than their own
  • Join in the conversation to bring an end to gender disparity
  • And last, but not least, they can hold those with bigoted sentiments to account for their opinion

We should all practice evidence-based medicine and there is no evidence to support any gender related argument in the quality and safety of surgery or of any other aspect of the profession.

Innovation in the gender equality space

In order to innovate in the gender equality space over and above networking, role models, mentoring and unconscious bias training, we can speed up the process by supporting flexible training and practice.

I suspect that the challenges and pressures facing women and men are becoming increasingly aligned. For example men may also appreciate the flexibility of innovative methods of working and combining approaches to helping women and men to work together must be one way forward.

The kindness principle

My most retweeted post ever is one that states: “To succeed in life never try to trip anyone else up. Be the best you can be. Work hard, have integrity, kindness, humility and be persistent”, which has been re-tweeted over 600 times so far and has been seen by 75,000 people.

I love the strength of feeling for this message. It suggests that many people feel that by working together and not letting local rivalries take hold we can achieve great things. I think this includes supporting each other, both women and men in surgery. The time really is right for a change. This philosophy applies to all and I live by it as my mantra.

Oliver Branford
Olivier with female colleagues at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons meeting in Los Angeles – Dr. Shana Ardeshna (@ShanaArdeshnaMD) – left, Olivier, Dr. Karen Horton (@drkarenhorton) and Dr. Victoria Vastine – right

I was so heartened at the most recent American Society of Plastic Surgeons meeting in Los Angeles in September 2016, the largest and most prestigious meeting in the world: a woman surgeons’ networking evening was held, to which I was invited. The meeting was open to other male surgeons too. I was made to feel very welcome and treated with great kindness.

Many of the surgeons that I admire the most happen to be women, they are represented by every generation of women, and they are an inspiration to us all. The fact that that their talent is matched by their generosity to their male colleagues sets a real example for us all to follow.

Advice for others who want to make positive change using social media

I would say that social media is a marathon not a sprint. For those that are starting out in Twitter for example, getting past the first one to two thousand followers really takes time. But after that the number of followers increases exponentially. I totally agree that when it comes to social media the more followers you have, the quicker you can grow your following.

I would not recommend using any automated apps as they are effectively the equivalent of junk mail. I do all the posts myself as it ensures that I apply the same ethical code as I do in my clinical practice. I also advise surgeons against self promotion – this is very dull and no one likes being marketed to. Be sure to post quality not quantity. Create original content – the best way to do this is via peer-reviewed articles and blogs. And the best advice apart from educating is to engage – be kind, positive and be sociable!

Don’t go changing…

For my next steps in clinical and academic surgery and social media and please follow me on my Twitter feed – @OlivierBranford. I have an article coming out soon that I have co-authored with a psychologist and a model where we advocate positive body image – coming to the same message from the point of view of different professions. No person should feel pressurised into changing the way they are by any element of society. Watch this space!





The London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women image credit: By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/fb/f5/41dd5bf2a05363f7b8662618257e.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0030958.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36041703

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