Doctor Q&A: Tami Rowen

Dr. Tami Rowen always knew she wanted to be a doctor. Growing up surrounded by family members who worked in health care, you could say it was in her blood.

Today she is an obstetrician and gynecologist at UCSF caring for women with sexual health concerns, disabilities, cancer and chronic illnesses, as well as those seeking gynecologic surgery or family planning help.

Rowen performs minimally invasive gynecologic and open surgery, in addition to office procedures for general gynecologic problems, including abnormal bleeding, fibroids, dysplasia and adnexal masses.

She has conducted several national and international studies on women's sexual health, as well as family planning research and clinical projects in Mozambique, Angola and North America.

How did you decide to go into medicine?

I am lucky in that I had a lot of exposure to various health-related fields through my family. I saw nursing, psychology, public health as a child — and saw examples of women in scientific fields.

At first I thought I was going to be a sociologist, but in high school I realized I was quite good at chemistry and biology. It then became clear to me that not only did I love people and interacting with them, I loved science.

How did you end up choosing to be an OB/GYN?

I saw my first delivery when I was 16 years old, thanks to my stepfather, who is also an OB/GYN and allowed me to go to a delivery with him.

I always knew it was what I wanted to do. Even in medical school I played around with a few different fields, but everything led me back to OB/GYN. When I finally did my obstetrics and gynecology rotation, I was so excited. I wanted to stay up all night long and deliver babies.

Was your family always on board with your career goals?

Not quite. My father does family medicine. He abandoned Western medicine and does only alternative medicine now. So he has strong feelings about the way the medical community treats diseases and illnesses.

My mother was a nurse practitioner who later became a psychologist. She always thought I would make a great psychiatrist and lobbied for that.

Was there anything that made you nervous about becoming a doctor?

During medical school people warned me that the field of medicine can be filled with some "not-nice" people. I thought, "If more good people don’t go into this, we are going to perpetuate the problem." I am not willing to be told that because I AM nice, I am not going to be a good fit with this field.

I actually thought a lot about becoming a midwife, but I realized that I didn't want to have to call a doctor if something goes wrong; I wanted to be the doctor. I wanted to be able to do the C-section.

You have an interest in disability studies and also treat many women with disabilities for gynecologic problems. How did that come about?

I got interested in the field after working at a camp for kids with disabilities and taking a class that looked at the medical model of disabilities. I learned that we sometimes actually pathologize things that might not need to be; one example is deafness.

How much time do you spend delivering babies versus doing gynecologic surgery and everything else?

I am almost 100-percent clinical. I operate one day a week; do labor-and-delivery call twice a month; and see patients the other days. When I am on call for labor and delivery, I may do a few unplanned C-sections, so about five C-sections a month.

Do you wish you had more time for labor and delivery?

My current schedule is a good mix. I am a new mother, so overnights are hard, but I definitely would miss delivering babies if I couldn't.

What is different these days is that I often miss out on the "fun stuff" like active labor support and helping a woman push, because our midwives are handling a lot of the basic, uncomplicated deliveries.

The other night I was on call and there was no midwife, so I pushed with this mother for three hours, and I loved it. It's very satisfying because you can really get babies born.

Did anything surprise you with your own labor?

Even before my labor, I was surprised that I had a lot more anxiety than I anticipated, in part because I've seen all the things that can go wrong. I also had a hard first trimester, so I do have so much more understanding for how women feel during that time — the nausea and vomiting, especially.

Because of my own pregnancy ups and downs, I just got much more in touch with everything, from the fear of having a preterm baby to scares with ultrasounds and genetic issues. It definitely improved my ability as a doctor.

Are there any misconceptions about OB/GYNs?

When it comes to obstetrics, the hardest thing for me is the pressure that women put on themselves to have a "natural" birth, whatever that means for them. So much stock gets placed in your birth story that it can be traumatizing for women who don't have a textbook, idealized labor story.

I know very well that there's a whole historical precedent for women wanting to take back control over their births. But sometimes it makes me sad when a woman doesn't have the birth she wanted and that weighs on her even though both she and her baby are very healthy in the end.

What would you do if you weren't a doctor?

I just know I would have done something in health care — something with people, so maybe a therapist of some sort.

What particularly excites you right now in your field?

Given that my area of expertise is sexual medicine, I am excited that we are finally talking about sex as a women's health issue. While some of the new drugs that are coming might not fix everything, they are helping bring sexual health out of the shadows.

For a long time, gynecologists didn't know how to help women, or in many cases even talk to them about these things.

It used to be mostly urologists who handled sexual health because it was only men who sought help, and by default some women turned to urologists too.

But that is not who most women are going to talk to about these issues. They see their gynecologist, and gynecologists need to ask the question! When I ask patients about sex, they very often have something to address.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I like to travel a lot, and I’m very outdoorsy. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and spent every summer there until I was 20. Whenever I can, I do a lot of hiking, swimming and yoga. Very typical Bay Area stuff!

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Obstetrics & Gynecology Services at Mount Zion
2356 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94143
Obstetrics: (415) 353-2566
Gynecology: (415) 885-7788
Obstetrics Fax: (415) 353-2496
Gynecology Fax: (415) 353-9550

More on the Expert

Tami Rowen
Dr. Tami Rowen,
obstetrician and gynecologist