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Medical Mentorships: How Both Doctors Can Get More Out of It

“They give me of their dreams, and I give them of my experience, and I get the better of the exchange.” Annie Sadosty, MD, cites this 1931 quote from William J. Mayo, cofounder of the Mayo Clinic, as capturing the essence of mentorship in medicine. Sadosty, an emergency medicine physician and dean of the Mayo Clinic School of Graduate Medical Education, Rochester, Minnesota, has been on the Mayo Clinic faculty for 23 years, working with hundreds of medical students, residents, and young physicians.

Suffice to say she understands the value of mentorship in medical training.

But here’s the catch: Mentorship today isn’t just taking a younger trainee “under your wing” and “showing them the ropes” (among other clichés). A good mentor-mentee relationship enriches both parties and extends beyond just the work done in hospitals and medical school classes. In fact, the benefit potential is probably bigger than most doctors realize.

“The mentor invests a lot of themselves in the mentee,” Sadosty says, “but the rewards, the dividends that come back to the mentor are so many, that it makes those early investments so worth it.” Like others in medical education, Sadosty sees the mentor-mentee relationship as one of mutual growth. Rather than simply passing on knowledge and dispensing advice, it is the mentor who learns from the mentee as well.

The Long History of Long-Term Benefits

Mentorship is part of medicine’s history, and many physicians attribute their successful careers to the mentors who guided them along the way. It has been an established tradition for young doctors to hone their clinical skills, knowledge, ethics, and professionalism through observation and discussion with a more senior advisor.

Recently, a growing body of literature has documented the benefits of effective physician mentorship, including faster promotion, higher faculty retention, greater career fulfillment, and increased research productivity. A 2018 survey of over 500 faculty members at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Medicine found that those with effective mentors were three-and-a-half times less likely to be stalled in their careers and four times more likely to report strong job satisfaction. The study also observed that those with mentors were three times more likely to become mentors themselves.

While many residency programs have created a formal mentorship process where young physicians are matched with a faculty member, mentorships often evolve organically and can take many forms. Along with scheduled meetings, Sadosty says she takes mentorship “one coffee cup at a time,” frequently meeting mentees where they want to be — walking, a jog, a meal, virtually, or occasionally on social media. She says her mentees have taught her professionally about aspects of medicine, but also personally about different cultures, inspiring her with their strength and dedication.

“Effective mentor, mentee relationships have to be bidirectional,” agrees Jeffrey Schneider, MD, an emergency medicine physician and chair of the Graduate Medical Education Committee at Boston Medical Center, overseeing more than 60 training programs. “It’s not only them teaching me about their perspective, looking at a problem from a slightly different angle. But also, how do I develop my own skills so that I can better make the connection with my mentee, imparting a skill or developing a competency or insight? How do I get the light bulb to go on for them as well?”

What Makes a Great Mentor?

As no one thinks they’re a lousy driver, it is possible some physicians overestimate their mentoring skills — as could younger physicians looking for a transactional relationship. What does it take to rise above?

Several studies have identified characteristics typical of effective mentors, including a 2013 survey from the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Among other qualities, the survey noted that good mentors prioritized their mentees’ best interest, were honest, accessible, and engaged, and importantly, were active listeners, interested in discovering their mentees’ goals and objectives — and here’s the key part — without a personal agenda.

Schneider believes that effective mentors must be inquisitive, curious, and willing to accept feedback from their mentees as much as they expect their own feedback to be incorporated. “Ask lots of questions,” he advises, adding that the ability to ask questions in a safe and nonthreatening way is “the foundation on which good mentorship relationships are built.”

“I think a really good mentor does a lot more listening than they do talking, and on a very basic level, just being very kind and engaged,” says Arielle Kurzweil, MD, a neurologist and director of the neurology residency program at NYU Langone Health. Kurzweil recommends that mentors take the time to learn about mentees’ strengths and passions, as well as their weaknesses and things that worry them the most. “I think sometimes mentees flounder a little bit because they don’t feel like their mentor is interested. You would hope that a good mentor would reach out, be engaged, and really want to cultivate their relationship. Yet a mentee should also feel comfortable reaching out and engaging; the relationship is two-sided.”

Create a Mentorship Team

Kurzweil also suggests young physicians look to many mentors, rather than just one, to learn about clinical practice, research, leadership, how to balance work with their personal lives, and other aspects of physician life. She advises mentees to “take different pearls” and “types of modeling” from a range of mentors to shape their practice and behavior.

Kurzweil says her first physician mentor was her father, an internist, who taught her the importance of a social history for each patient as well as a medical one. As a child she pored over her father’s handwritten medical charts, absorbing the ways he created personal bonds with his patients.

Schneider says that his early mentors took on different roles throughout his training, as instructor, coach, or cheerleader, as well as providing connections to other colleagues with similar interests.

Diversity in mentorship has also been recognized as a way to increase much needed representation in the physician workforce and improve health equity. A 2021 review of mentorship literature from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, cited studies indicating physicians from underrepresented groups were less likely to have mentors both as trainees and faculty.

The review compiled several themes that facilitate mentorship for underrepresented groups, including institutional support for a diversity mission, financial resources for salary parity for minority faculty, and assistance in sponsoring them for leadership positions.

Nguyet-Cam V. Lam, MD, a family medicine physician and program director for the family medicine residency at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says that diversity is an important priority in her work as an educator. “I definitely want to seek out, promote, and encourage it,” she says.

As well as a role model for students and young physicians with various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, she focuses on creating a diverse group of residents in her program. As a female physician and mother of three children, she feels she is also demonstrating the balance between her work and family commitments, helping residents overcome any doubts they may have about their path toward success.

“Being a mentor is to help the mentee achieve their full potential,” says Lam. “And so, if any of my students or residents have any hesitancy, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ — it’s my calling to encourage them and to give them all the tools so that they can do it. Everybody has a story to tell and something to learn from.”

The Intangible (and Yet So Powerful) Rewards

Nothing brings more joy and pride, mentors say, than watching their mentees achieve their dreams and go on to mentor others themselves. Lam was recently thrilled when a mentee was recognized with a Resident Teacher of the Year Award. Sadosty recalls a mentee who expressed an interest in global health and disaster settings. Years later, she saw him on the news setting up a tent in New York’s Central Park during the early days of COVID-19. “Witnessing the dreams of others manifest is hard to beat,” she says.

The industry as a whole also reaps the benefits, adds Peter Angood, MD, CEO, and president of the American Association for Physician Leadership. Since medical education lacks formal or consistent leadership training, he credits mentorship with fostering the next generation of physician leaders. As well as offering education on leadership, management training, and professional development, the association runs its own mentorship program, matching early career physicians with seasoned leaders in the healthcare industry.

“We view part of our priority as an organization is how best to facilitate all those types of mentoring opportunities,” Angood says. “Once individuals start to think about leadership, typically that’s because they have a desire to create positive change in the industry. And so, all of us are looking to others who are creating that influence, creating that change.”

The Next Generation

“Mentorship is a form of advocacy,” says Tanesha Beckford, MD, a third-year resident in emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center. “We think about advocacy as speaking up, but sometimes it’s really just guiding the people around you that may not look like you and affording them opportunities where there are certain inequities.” Beckford believes that the mentors she has had throughout her education are the reason behind her success. From helping her study for her MCATs to sponsoring her for certain positions, they have helped defeat the barriers that might have stood in her way as a woman of color in medicine.

Beckford now acts as a mentor to younger trainees and says she always thinks of mentorship as “a two-way street,” where the mentor learns about current issues and concerns from younger physicians. She tries to celebrate each of her mentees’ small accomplishments as important steps in their journey, appreciating how they give her perspective on her own career path.

“I push them to be greater than the mistakes that I’ve made,” she says, “to see the next generation be better, not go through the struggles that you have, not hear the negative things that you have. Each of us is learning and growing every day.”

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