As part of our ongoing series, we sat down with one of RCA’s leading retinal specialists, Dr. Margaret Chang of Retinal Consultants Serving Northern California based in Sacramento. We wanted to learn what it takes to be a superior surgeon and thought leader in the field.
You have an interesting path to becoming a retinal specialist. Please tell us more.
I became a retinal specialist in a very roundabout way. I entered college through a program at the University of Washington that condensed high school into one year after 7th grade. As a 14-year-old college freshman, I declared piano performance as my major, since I had been performing piano publicly since I was five years old. After a couple years, I realized that I did not want to perform piano for a living or become a piano teacher. I decided to go to medical school, even though my father, an anesthesiologist, had warned me that medicine was a long road and a lot of hard work. I thought I would be a pediatrician, and maybe even work just part time. Funny how things turned out really differently! I decided to specialize in ophthalmology after realizing that the eyes are not only their own world, they are the windows into the rest of medicine. I intended to become a cornea specialist at the time. However, when I saw submacular surgery during my first year of residency, I decided I had to become a retinal surgeon. Going full circle, I think the years of playing piano probably have helped connect my hands, feet, and brain and helped with my surgical skills!
Now, let’s shift and talk about your thriving practice in Northern California. How do you recruit and find the next generation of leaders?
When we are bringing on new partners, we always look for like-minded people. As a group, we really know each other, trust each other, and understand each other. We look for the best and the brightest who have the same work ethic. We are looking for people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Since we cover a large geographic area, we rely on each other to cover each other when patients come in for emergency appointments. We do operations that are added on by our partners and rely on each other to see each other’s post-ops. We need amazing doctors who trust each other in order to be a successful, seamless team for our patients, and we look for that in new colleagues.
Tell us a little about balancing family life and work life.
Even though it is tough being a full-time retina surgeon while trying to take on a leadership role in the administration of the practice, I think the toughest hat I wear is being a mom. At work, my staff is wonderful and supportive, and my patients are very appreciative. At home, I am much busier with 3 very active boys, 10, 12, and 13. They have a lot of extracurricular activities and sports interests. My husband is very supportive but also works full time as a radiologist. There are only so many things that I can control. Thankfully, I do have help at home, so I don’t try to do everything myself. My oldest two boys have severe nut allergies, so I have learned how to bake out of necessity. Now, I use my baking skills as bribery to control situations at home!
Do you have any clinical trials or research underway?
We have a very strong research presence across two clinical trial sites in our practice. I am a principal investigator on multiple trials, and on the steering committee of several phase III trials. During medical school, I decided to pursue a separate master’s degree in biostatistics in order to conduct clinical research. By being in a busy private practice, I have the best of both worlds: treating patients as well as advancing the field through research. There are always exciting new therapies that are being investigated and there is always something to learn about the eye. We can always improve our approach to care and the treatment we can offer.
What is most rewarding in your field?
I think that it comes down to working with patients and saving eyesight. I really appreciate the connection I make with all my patients. My 8 year old and 80 year old patients tell me I’m their favorite doctor, even though I have to do procedures they don’t like, and another patient gave me a painting she did after I repaired her retinal detachment. Some patients express their gratitude directly, but it is the knowledge that I’ve made a difference that makes it all worthwhile. There is no other feeling that comes close. In the retinal field, we take care of some of the most complicated and vision-threatening conditions in ophthalmology. As a practice, we strongly believe in taking care of the retina needs of the entire community. I feel very fortunate to have the resources and support to give my patients the care they need to save their eyesight, regardless of financial burden.
What are the benefits you have seen in partnering with Retina Consultants of America?
RCA is an amazing group of stellar individuals in premier retina practices. I am fortunate to be part of that group and to share ideas and best practices with them. We have the opportunity to collaborate and share ideas and ultimately build better practices. Through RCA, I am meeting with the best of the best in the retinal field and learning research, marketing, and recruitment efficiencies.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a recent graduate considering the retinal field of medicine?
Be curious and do not be afraid of challenges. Intellectual curiosity and doing something you love, whether in medicine or otherwise, makes for a fulfilling career. I would also encourage more women to enter retina, and private practice in particular. Have an open mind, follow your passion, and you will end up doing something that makes you happy.