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#WomenofPenn: A Lifetime of Lessons: Christine Stabler Reflects on Teaching — and Learning

Christine Stabler, MD

The following post is part of a year-long online campaign highlighting #WomenofPenn. The campaign, developed by FOCUS on Women’s Health and Leadership and Penn Medicine Communications, promotes the work being done by women at Penn Medicine and aims to inspire early-career women in academic medicine through the examples of successful women role models.

Fresh out of residency, Christine Stabler, MD, was initially ambivalent about exploring the academic side of family medicine. But, her misgivings quickly faded when she discovered that teaching brought her as much joy as caring for patients.

Just three years into her practice, Stabler joined the faculty of the Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program, becoming Deputy Director in 1995. She was named Lancaster General Health’s first Vice President for Academic Affairs in 2011.

Stabler credits a series of strong female mentors for supporting her throughout her 35-year career in family medicine. In turn, she has mentored dozens of younger female physicians, including Kathryn McKenna, MD, MPH, a 2016 graduate of the LGH Family Medicine Residency Program.

McKenna now serves on the residency program’s faculty alongside Stabler and sees patients at LG Health Physicians Family Medicine Downtown. The two physicians recently discussed the similarities between family medicine and teaching, the importance of mentorship, and the challenges of balancing work and family.

Kathryn McKenna, MD, MPH

Q: (McKenna) The field of Family Medicine is broad. We see patients of all ages and genders, and treat chronic and acute conditions. What are your areas of interest and expertise within Family Medicine?

A: (Stabler) I see patients at LG Health Physicians Family & Maternity Medicine. I enjoy taking care of families, from the new ones formed after delivering a baby to the multigenerational families I have provided care to for more than 35 years. Women’s health is a special facet of family medicine. I enjoy providing anticipatory guidance to women. I like to let them know what’s coming as they grow and mature. In many cases, I have experienced it myself. For many of those women, I also take care of their children and now their grandchildren. I know all of the background, and being part of building that beautiful structure of a family is very rewarding for me. I’m here for all of the stories.

Q: You have had a long career not only in providing direct patient care but also in academics. How did you become interested in the academic side of family medicine?

A: After I completed my Family Medicine Residency at LGH, I remember talking with a medical school classmate who was headed directly into academics from his residency. I thought that was a funny choice after all of our training. But, I quickly learned that the core of family medicine is teaching, and I thrived on it. I had physician’s assistant and medical students in my first practice, and seeing them grow was as important to me as caring for my patients. I entered an Academic Fellowship the next year and never looked back.

In addition to my role with the residency program, I currently oversee the Clinical Clerkship program for medical and advanced practice students who rotate at LGH. I also hold faculty appointments at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple, and the Penn State College of Medicine. Throughout my career, having learners behind me has pushed me to continue to learn more.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

A: Without a doubt, my children. My son, Ben, starts his Family Medicine Residency here at LGH this month. My daughter, Kate, gives her talents to her community as a baker, butcher, cheese maker, and herbalist. When my children were younger, I sometimes struggled to be both a good mom and a good doctor. It was hard to balance it all, and I certainly didn’t do it alone. There were times when I pushed them in a stroller while rounding in the hospital, or took them along on home visits. Years later, it was gratifying to me when Ben recalled those times in his personal statement on his medical school application.

In medicine, I think I am most proud of my contributions to the education of a generation of family physicians. In addition, I am proud of my advocacy through leadership roles in the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Physicians, where I served as President, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. I also serve on the American Hospital Association’s Clinical Leadership Committee and now as a Board member of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education.

Q: In 2017, you were elected to the Penn Medicine Academy of Master Clinicians, an esteemed group of clinicians who exemplify the highest standards of clinical excellence, humanism and professionalism. What did that distinction mean to you?

A: I think it was a seminal event for both Penn and myself. I was the first family physician and non-Penn faculty member elected. I saw this as a recognition of the value LG Health brings to the Penn system, with our expertise in primary care and population health.

Q: There is a known – researched and published – gender disparity in the medical field. Can you share any challenges you have faced and how you have overcome them in your leadership roles?

A: I earned my medical degree through a five-year premed/med program at Penn State University and Jefferson Medical College. That meant I started medical school at age 18. The environment has definitely changed since then. I think, in retrospect, that it was a little easier for me than for women today in that some degree of gender discrimination was the norm. It was universal and accepted as the status quo. My naiveté and braggadocio got me through most of it. As a smart-mouthed city kid, I was tougher than most, bigger than most, and so young that I didn’t realize it was affecting me. Nothing really bothered me, and it certainly didn’t stop me for achieving my goals. My grandmother, a woman who could not be stopped, was a role model for success. She was a pistol until the day she died, just one day shy of her 100th birthday.

Q: How have you tried to pave a path toward greater equity for other female physicians following in your footsteps?

A: I’d like to think it’s mentorship. When I came to Lancaster, there were only three women in our residency program. I have had the opportunity to mentor dozens of woman physicians throughout my career. I tell them that you don’t have to give up family, career, or success. You can have it all. You just have to be patient, compromise, and be really organized. And sometimes you just have to wait for certain things. As a nominations committee member of various organizations, I made sure to encourage (or brow beat) other women to get involved and have a voice in medicine, politics, and their community.

Q: What piece of advice would you give to young female physicians who aspire to leadership positions?

A: Take your time. Find what makes you happy. Don’t do something just to be a leader. Find an issue you’re passionate about – whether it’s at your church, the medical society, or the PTA at your kids’ school -- and you will make a contribution no matter what. Strong female leaders are very much in demand. If you are interested enough, you will find that opportunities to take on a leadership role will come your way naturally.

Q: Do you have any key principles or values that have guided you through your career?

A: My personal vision statement has three parts. Number one: Patient first. Sometimes it can get easy to lose that in the business of life. Number two: I make a difference. Whether it’s double-checking an entry in the medical record or taking a few minutes to make a phone call, the extra steps are worth it. And number three: The work is the reward. I find my reward in my connections with my patients and my ability to have an impact on their lives.

Q How did you navigate work and home responsibilities when your children were young?

A My husband Russ and I made the decision together. We were fortunate enough to find and hire Lois, my “fairy godmother,” to be our home anchor and provide child care as the kids grew up. She was a key part of our family for 12 years. Russ had the flexibility to pace his studies while earning a teaching certificate, and I had the comfort of knowing that there was a consistent parent at home. We had some understandings about division of labor – and the rest worked because we had a similar vision for family.

Q: What role has mentorship played in your career, either as the mentee and/or as a mentor?

A: I have had many wonderful mentors throughout my career. My family physician was a woman, so a career in medicine was not a stretch for me. I went to a public all-girls high school with doctoral-level teachers who were women (such as Edna Green and Frieda Kahler). Lancaster provided me with woman family physicians who ran their practices (Irene Davis, Margaret Eyler and Marvel Kirk). In organized medicine, Lila Stein Kroser was my mentor, supporting me as President of the PAFP and my Fellowship in the Philadelphia College of Physicians. I believe in paying it forward, and I hope that I have had an impact on some of the women I have had the privilege to teach.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

A: Make time for yourself. Let others help sometimes. It’s healthier.

Q: What goals do you have for the next phase of your career?

A: I am interested in supporting women’s services for our health system, with a focus on enhancing the care we provide women from premenarche to the end of life. My lottery-winning wish is to create a teaching health center that emphasizes team-based care and ensures that medical professionals work to the top of their licenses. LG Health has a tremendous resource in our college and professional students (medical, nursing, legal, social work, dental, financial, etc.). We can train that team to provide true population health and offer a comprehensive one-stop shop for the many people in our community who still need access to health care.

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