Nathalie C. Rioux, M.D., FRCS, is passionate about improving diversity in medicine.
“Women in Medicine Month means a great deal to me,” said Dr. Rioux, a fellowship-trained glaucoma specialist with Pioneer Valley Ophthalmic Consultants in Greenfield, Amherst and Holyoke, Massachusetts. “Females practice medicine a little differently because we have a unique touch.”
Born, raised and trained in Montreal, Canada, Dr. Rioux was not in the minority as a woman in medicine. “In 1991, my graduating class at the University of Montreal School of Medicine was 60 percent female and 40 percent male,” she proudly stated. “In my surgical subspecialty at the University of Montreal Affiliated Hospitals, we had equal numbers of men and women.”
When Dr. Rioux began her career in the United States, she experienced a culture shock. She was the only female in surgery, and her colleagues mistakenly thought she was a sales rep. “I think we still have a lot of work to do in the United States because we need more female doctors. I think males and females work well together because we complete each other,” she said.
Dr. Rioux runs a thriving practice with her partner, John P. Frangie, M.D., who is a corneal specialist. Their practice is the only one in Western Massachusetts with both a fellowship-trained glaucoma specialist and a fellowship-trained cornea specialist. Dr. Rioux is also married to an ophthalmologist, John A. Thayer, M.D., who is in private practice locally.
There are many necessary steps to improve diversity and inclusion in medicine. Dr. Rioux would like to see equal numbers of men and women accepted into medical schools, but this requires flourishing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs on the high school level. She advocates for STEM programs at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, an academically rigorous International Baccalaureate school in Greenfield. The school is comprised of students from 13 states and 11 countries and is committed to racial and socioeconomic diversity. As a member of their board of trustees, Dr. Rioux speaks at conferences to encourage young female high school students to pursue sciences. She tells the students, “Women are excellent surgeons. Talent is gender-neutral.”
She also mentors young female ophthalmology students, and she welcomes them to shadow her in the office and in surgery. Through mentoring, she provides practical clinical training as well as candid interpersonal advice about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. She advises young female physicians, “Stand your ground and make it clear from the very beginning that you don’t accept harassment.” She gives the same advice to her daughter, Julia, a 19-year-old pre-law student at the University of Toronto.
As a glaucoma specialist and member of the board of directors at Pioneer Valley Ophthalmic Consultants, Dr. Rioux is committed to bringing innovations to the surgery center, “I was the one who initiated the purchase of the Selective Laser Trabeculoplasty (SLT) laser,” she remembered, “and because all the ophthalmologists used it, we paid for the laser within the year.” She has always tried to stay current with new surgical approaches like minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) and new glaucoma devices that improve the quality of life in her patients.
It is essential for her as a female physician in leadership to stay up-to-speed clinically, but Dr. Rioux says nothing is more important to her than her relationship with people. “I am very close to the people I work with at the surgery center. I like to represent the employees, and I am a good voice for them.”
Empathy and kindness are two traits she learned from her grandfather, an OB-GYN in Quebec City who was her mentor. “The difference between a good doctor and a great doctor is the relationship you have with your patients. It's not just what you know. It’s what you say and how you say it.”