Dr. Anita Shaffer, internal medicine physician at The Polyclinic Madison Center, broke a barrier of sorts in 1981 when she became the first woman physician to practice at The Polyclinic. Because of that important 'first', she has a special place in our Polyclinic 100 year history. Here we share a Q and A with Dr. Shaffer as she reflects on her career at the clinic.
Why did you become a doctor?
I always loved science in high school. It was the only class I was really excited about. In college, I majored in nuclear physics, but then realized it wasn't the connection with people I wanted. I changed to biochemistry and decided to become a doctor. I thought it was an exciting challenge to open up a field where women were underrepresented.
Why did you choose to become a primary care physician?
I finished my residency in internal medicine at University of Washington in 1978. I wasn't quite ready to start a practice so I joined the emergency department at Harrison Memorial in Bremerton. The ER was an exciting place to work for 2 ½ years, but I decided I wanted to follow patients through their lives. I've since had many three-generation families in my practice at The Polyclinic and I've really cherished that.
What qualities are important for a doctor to have?
I think it's important to have a strong scientific background and to stay up to date on new developments. But what is most important to me as a primary care physician is listening to your patient, putting yourself in their place, and then deciding on the appropriate medical advice or course of treatment.
Why did you choose to work at The Polyclinic?
The Polyclinic had a highly respected reputation, then as now. I liked the multispecialty approach, the onsite imaging and lab, and it was well run. It just seemed that this was a place where I could do what I wanted—practice medicine—without having to handle all the administrative, office, and billing work. It has been a very good fit for me over the years.
Did you have any concerns about being the first woman on The Polyclinic's medical staff?
I talked to several women physicians in Seattle and they all said 'don't even apply to The Polyclinic; they'll never hire a woman.' But they welcomed me. After I was hired, some of the physicians said they worried I'd demand equal time in gym they had in the basement at Broadway, but I wasn't at all interested. I've always been treated extremely cordially by my colleagues. I never felt the least bit odd or strange as the first female physician here. Several physicians gave me good advice on patient relations, billing, many of the things you don't learn in med school, just as they would have done with any new physician.
What did you like about The Polyclinic when you joined?
I liked hospital work and I liked being there for patients in a time of crisis. There's nothing like seeing your physician at your bedside each morning to feel reassured. It wasn't uncommon to have 5 – 10 patients in the hospital each week. Our internal medicine group rounded at either Swedish, Providence or Cabrini hospital every day. I was in the same call group at Drs. John Wiegenstein, James Lane and Brad Harris when I started. Several of us including Drs. Harris, Younger and Cordova, continued to round until Younger and Harris retired in 2013.
You paved the way for other women on the medical staff; do you consider yourself a trailblazer?
I didn't seem like a trailblazer at the time; it seemed like the natural thing to do. I was looking for a good situation to practice and I think I found one. Women physicians to follow me included rheumatologist Dr. Pamela Sheets in 1990 (retired in 2015) and Drs. Marti Hyatt Liddell and Ann Bridges in 1992.
Were there any other notable firsts in your life?
I was the first girl captain of school patrol in 6th grade at Gertrude Boase Elementary in Hoyt Lakes Minnesota; things just kept going from there!
What do you like about The Polyclinic now?
I really love this building [Madison Center]. I was dubious at first, but it's well thought out, beautiful, and efficient. While I sometimes miss being small enough to know everyone in the clinic, I'm proud to be part of a group that's so well run and managed.
Did you think you would be here for our 100th anniversary?
It's pretty awesome to be with a clinic that's been growing and expanding for 100 years; remarkable actually. I've been so proud and humbled to be part of that. It was an innovative, forward-thinking idea they started with: doctors working together for deliver better patient care; and how right they were!
What's next for you?
I'm celebrating my 36th anniversary this year and my plan is to practice until my 40th anniversary. Who knows? Maybe I'll change my mind, but that's my goal.
Thank you Dr. Shaffer for all your contributions and all the years you've shared with us! Thirty-six years out of 100 is pretty impressive – happy anniversary!