Faculty Spotlight: Leah Backhus, MD, MPH

Faculty highlights the importance of mentorship, experience in research and leadership, and opportunities for underrepresented surgeons

by Roxanna Van Norman
June 9, 2022

Leah Backhus, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery (Thoracic Surgery), knows first-hand how exposure and engagement with mentors can cement a decision for someone going into a specialized surgical field. As a student, she initially contemplated the field of neurosurgery but gravitated towards cardiothoracic surgery early in her medical training after realizing how critical mentorship was for her.

"Mentors are so important in helping you shape your career," said Backhus, who completed her general surgery training at the University of Southern California and residency in cardiothoracic surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles. "I know it did for me."

Throughout her training, she was impressed by the expertise and compassion her peers and mentors shared in caring for patients. That level of engagement and exposure fueled her interest in every level of her cardiothoracic surgery training – something she applies to her current day-to-day practice. 

"You have to make sure everyone, from the most junior trainee to the fellow preparing for graduation, feels some sort of ownership in the operation they are engaged in and feel like they are a part of the team in taking care of the patient," said Backhus, reflecting on her previous training and opportunities in the operating room.

Photo credit: Steve Fisch

As the Associate Program Director of the Thoracic Track Residency for the Stanford Cardiothoracic Surgery Residency Training Program, Backhus ensures residents get that experience. This includes guiding trainees to find support to attend scientific meetings and build a network of mentors and professional connections.

"It's so important we are good shepherds to our future generation of surgeons," said Backhus.

Research and beyond

Backhus has built her notable career in cardiothoracic surgery for many years, covering all aspects of general thoracic surgery and specializing in thoracic cancers such as lung and esophageal and chest wall surgery. Since joining the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery faculty in 2015, Backhus splits her time between practicing at Stanford Hospital and serving as Chief of Thoracic Surgery at the Veteran Affairs (VA) Palo Alto Health Care.

Backhus is Co-Director of the Thoracic Surgery Clinical Research Program and holds several administrative and leadership roles outside the university. She sits on the National Lung Cancer Roundtable of the American Cancer Society, serving as Chair of the Task Group on Lung Cancer in Women, and the Board of Directors of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Recently, she was named the inaugural Deputy Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for JAMA Surgery

Her research interests include imaging surveillance following treatment for lung cancer and cancer survivorship. One of her current projects in this research area is supported by the VA Health Services Research and Development Service (HSR&D) Investigator-Initiated Research Merit Award.

In this project, Backhus and her team are analyzing and linking patient records from multiple data sources while using a novel computerized semi-automated data abstraction method to retrieve information from patient records linked to structured clinical data fields. Ultimately, she hopes findings from their study will inform guideline recommendations on post-lung cancer treatment surveillance that improves patient survival.

Next generation of surgeons

As one of the very few women surgeons in cardiothoracic surgery, Backhus says mentorship is essential to helping the next generation of underrepresented surgeons pursue their dreams.

"We need to increase the numbers of women in our field, and in doing so, we can help each surgeon to reap the benefits of peer-to-peer mentorship, creating a safe space for talking about difficult topics. We can demystify the promotion process and allow for easier navigation of career milestones crucial to more representation in leadership positions," said Backhus.

Creating a community of peer and senior mentors provides a long-lasting support group for aspiring surgeons, especially for the female surgeons in the Department. Currently, the Department has nine female faculty and eight female residents. In July, two more female surgeons will join the Department for a total of 11 female faculty and nine female residents.

Photo credit: Ashley Choi

To place this in a greater context, Backhus noted, the average number of female faculty in an academic department or division of cardiothoracic surgery in the United States is zero, placing Stanford a leader in this regard.

With a robust clinical and academic workload and active leadership roles, she also focuses on well-being, self-care activities, and spending time with friends and family. As she advances in her career, she remarks on the incredible opportunities given to her but understands it is a challenge to manage it all.

"It's finding a fine balance," said Backhus. From tracking your academic career growth to expanding your research activities to promoting yourself outside of the institution, she said there is value in all of these efforts. The trick is to constantly make adjustments to their relative allocation of time and effort to keep them aligned with your current goals.

As far as advice for individuals going into the field of cardiothoracic surgery, she said the key to career longevity is finding a good fit in something they are interested in, passionate about, and can see themselves doing for a very long time.

Ask yourself, "What's the most mundane thing you might be asked to do practicing in a field you are considering?" Backhus said. For her, she said, "even the most mundane thing in thoracic surgery was still interesting and fun. So that kind of sealed the deal!"

Dr. Leah Backhus