Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

On Call with... Dr Emma Meagher, Class of 1987

01 March 2018

"Practicing defensive medicine is not necessarily practicing good medicine. The priority not to leave yourself exposed is not always in the patient's interest."


Emma Meagher

Q&A with Dr Meagher, an award-winning Vice Dean & Chief Clinical Research Officer at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and Senior Associate Vice Provost for Research at the University of Pennsylvania.



Ireland at that time [1990s] was very rigid; you had to go with the status quo. The opportunity for change was minimal and everyone followed the same career path. The kind of hybrid career that I wanted, combining a clinical role with research but with education at the core, did not exist. And I thought I could do anything! I left Dublin - with my husband Dr Noel N Williams, a fellow RCSI alumnus who also completed his training in Ireland - for an assistant professorship at Penn Dept of Medicine.


I worked hard, was promoted through the ranks. There is no resistance to change here [in the US]. At their core, people here are innovative, nimble in an environment where change is the norm.


I never stopped to ask myself the gender question. My gender has not been a hindrance or placed limits on my career. I believe in my ability to effect change. I believe, rightly or wrongly, that my voice deserves to be heard. As I have gone higher up the chain of command, I am more aware that people are looking at me because I am a woman - but that is because women are thinner on the ground in the upper echelons.

 1987 30 Year Reunion

Class of 1987 at 30 Year Reunion in 2017. Dr Meagher is pictured bottom left.


The support you need is the support of your superiors. I had a boss who completely understood the need to be flexible. I had four children under five but he trusted me to get the job done. And, at Penn it is a requirement that you have a mentor, to shepherd you through. Their idea is that they invest in you; it is in their interest for you to be a success.


I never believed a career break was a possibility. I had my first child after my internship and the next three years were the hardest three years of my life. I questioned my decisions; they were tough years, trying to keep moving forward. It makes me sad to think back to how lonely it was - trying to get the job done and be a good mum. But, the lion's share of the credit for my attitude goes to my parents.

My mum was the middle child of ten kids, fiercely principled, always interested in social justice, equality and the value of education, especially for girls. My Dad was all about excellence. I learned from them how important it is not to allow yourself be diminished by other people. Have perspective, a sense of humour, believe in yourself. I hope I have instilled that in my four.


I was an attending physician all my working life up to 2014. I was sad to say goodbye to caring for patients but, if you do it well, and you must, you had to commit to it completely. Clinical practice is challenging. It's more oriented towards prevention of malpractice and as a result is squarely centred on documentation. This I do not miss. Practicing defensive medicine is not necessarily practicing good medicine. The priority not to leave yourself exposed is not always in the patient's interest.


I am an early riser, usually at my desk by 6.45am and at my first meeting with students, trainees or colleagues at 7am. At 8am I might have a conference call, then the morning is spent on a number of issues - for example, changes to the strategic plan for undergraduate training or the research compliance problem in the operating rooms of the five hospitals within our remit. I then have a short break for lunch before the afternoon is spent on senior leadership meetings, with the Dean, Provost and Vice Deans before more teaching and often a reception to attend in the evening.

I work out every day. I love exercise but hate the gym so I either do a class - at the moment it's a mix of pilates/yoga and high-intensity interval training - or run on the running trail at work. When I get home, myself and my husband have something simple to eat, and I am in bed by ten. The weekends are different: we have a house at the beach so we cook for family there or we might visit one of our kids [aged 24-28] all working away from home.


I am of the opinion that the priorities of the millennial generation will present challenges for healthcare and healthcare systems. Millennials' expectations are different: they talk about there being too much information to absorb, they want shorter working weeks, they want yoga and meditation on site, a better work/life balance. In practice, how does this align with being future healthcare providers? I believe the practice of medicine requires a strong dose of selflessness - it's a profession and requires extra commitment. We need to seriously question if we are identifying the right people for the job.

  Class of 1987 Yearbook

Class of 1987 Yearbook Photo


When I think back to the pre-clinical years at RCSI, we were a cohesive group and very vocal. We had a great relationship with our professors. Of our group of about 150, perhaps 30 of us were Irish, the remainder from Western Europe, the USA and the Middle East. This mix of influences gave us a cultural competency and a team-oriented skillset. Nowadays this is taught intentionally in the US education system whereas at RCSI it was second nature.


Thank you Dr Meagher


'On Call' is our new alumni interview series in which alumni supply the answers to our searching questions. If you have any comments, feedback, or would like to be put in contact with Dr Meagher please email