“They give me of their dreams, and I give them of my experience, and I get the upper hand from the exchange.” Annie Sadosty, MD, cites this 1931 quote from William J. Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic, as 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 a member of the Mayo Clinic faculty for 23 years, working with hundreds of medical students, residents, and young physicians.
Suffice it to say, she understands the value of mentorship in medical education.
But here’s the catch: Mentoring these days isn’t just about taking a younger intern “under your wing” and “showing them the tricks of the trade” (among other clichés). A good mentor-mentee relationship enriches both parties and goes beyond just working in hospitals and medical school classrooms. In fact, the benefit potential is probably greater than most doctors realize.
“The mentor invests a lot of himself in the mentee,” says Sadosty, “but the rewards, the dividends that come back to the mentor are so numerous, it makes those early investments so worth it.” Like others in medical education, Sadosty sees the mentor-mentee relationship as one of mutual growth. Instead of just transferring knowledge and giving advice, the mentor also learns from the mentee.
The long history of long-term benefits
Mentoring is part of the history of medicine, and many physicians attribute their successful careers to the mentors who have guided them along the way. It is an established tradition for young physicians 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, greater teacher retention, greater career fulfillment, and increased research productivity. A 2018 study of more than 500 Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Medicine faculty members found that those with effective mentors were three-and-a-half times less likely to get stuck in their careers and four times more likely to report high job satisfaction. The study also noted 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 paired with a faculty member, mentorships often evolve organically and can take many forms. In addition to scheduled meetings, Sadosty says she takes mentorship “one cup of coffee at a time,” often meeting mentees where they want to be — walking, jogging, having a meal, virtually or on social media every now and then. She says her mentees taught her about aspects of medicine professionally, as well as personally about different cultures, inspiring her with their strength and dedication.
“Effective mentor, mentee relationships should be bidirectional,” agrees Jeffrey Schneider, MD, an emergency medicine physician and chair of the Graduate Medical Education Committee at Boston Medical Center, which oversees more than 60 training programs. “It’s not just them who teach me about their perspective, by looking at a problem from a slightly different angle. But also, how do I develop my own skills so that I can better connect with my mentee, teach a skill or develop a competence or insight? How do I make sure the lamp lights up for them too?”
What makes a good mentor?
Because no one thinks they are a bad driver, it’s possible that some doctors overestimate their mentoring skills — as do younger doctors seeking a transactional relationship. What does it take to get up?
Several studies have identified characteristics that are typical of effective mentors, including a 2013 study 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 things, the survey found that good mentors prioritized the importance of their mentees, were honest, approachable and engaged, and most importantly, were active listeners, interested in discovering their mentees’ goals and objectives – and this is the most important part – without a personal agenda.
Schneider believes that effective mentors should be eager to learn, curious, and willing to accept feedback from their mentees, just as they expect their own feedback to be included. “Ask lots of questions,” he advises, adding that the ability to ask questions in a safe and non-threatening manner “is the foundation upon which good mentorship relationships are built.”
“I think a really good mentor listens a lot more than talks, and on a really basic level, is just really nice and involved,” 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 the mentees’ strengths and passions, their weaknesses, and things that worry them most. “I think sometimes mentees flinch a bit because they feel like their mentor isn’t interested. You would hope that a good mentor would reach out, be involved and really want to cultivate their relationship. But a mentee also needs to feel comfortable reaching out and being involved; the relationship is two-sided.”
Create a mentorship team
Kurzweil also suggests that 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 a physician’s life. She advises mentees to “take different pearls” and “model types” 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 and a medical history. As a child, she delved into her father’s handwritten medical records and absorbed the ways he created personal bonds with his patients.
Schneider says his early mentors took on various roles throughout his training, as an instructor, coach or cheerleader, as well as connecting with 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 that physicians from underrepresented groups were less likely to have mentors, both as interns and faculty.
The review put together several themes that facilitate mentorship for underrepresented groups, including institutional support for a diversity mission, funding for salary parity for minority faculties, and help sponsoring them for leadership positions.
Nguyet-Cam V. Lam, MD, family physician and program director for the family medicine residency at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says diversity is a key priority in her work as an educator. “I definitely want to seek it out, promote it, and encourage it,” she says.
In addition to being a role model for students and young doctors from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, her program focuses on creating a diverse group of residents. As a female doctor and mother of three, she feels she also shows the balance between her work and family obligations, helping residents overcome any doubts about their path to success.
“To be a mentor is to help the mentee reach their full potential,” Lam says. “And so, if one of my students or residents has any hesitation, ‘Can I do this? Can I do that?’ — my calling is to encourage them and give them all the tools to do it. Everyone has a story to tell and something to learn from.”
The Intangible (yet So Powerful) Rewards
Nothing brings more joy and pride, mentors say, than seeing their mentees achieve their dreams and start mentoring others themselves. Lam was recently delighted when a mentee was recognized with a Resident Teacher of the Year Award. Sadosty recalls a mentee who took an interest in global health and disaster situations. Years later, she saw him on the news pitching 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 is also reaping the benefits, adds Peter Angood, MD, CEO and president of the American Association for Physician Leadership. Because medical school lacks formal or consistent leadership training, he attributes mentorship to encouraging the next generation of physician leaders. In addition to offering leadership education, management training, and professional development, the association has its own mentoring program, pairing early career physicians with experienced healthcare leaders.
“We see as part of our priority as an organization how to best facilitate all those types of mentoring opportunities,” says Angood. “Once individuals start thinking about leadership, it’s usually because they have a desire to create positive change in the industry. And so we all look to others who create that influence, who create change.”
The next generation
“Mentorship is a form of advocacy,” says Tanesha Beckford, MD, a third-year resident of emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center. “We think of advocacy as speaking out, but sometimes it’s really just the people around you who may not look like you, giving them opportunities where there’s certain inequality.” Beckford believes the mentors she has had during her education are the reason behind her success. From helping her study for her MCATs to sponsoring her for certain positions, they’ve helped overcome the barriers that had stood in her way as a woman of color in medicine.
Beckford now serves as a mentor to younger interns and says she always views mentorship as a “two-way street,” where the mentor from younger doctors learns about current issues and concerns. She tries to celebrate the small achievements of her mentees as important steps in their journey and appreciates how they give her perspective on her own career path.
“I challenge them to be bigger than the mistakes I made,” she says, “to see the next generation better, not to go through the struggles you have, not to hear the negative things you have Each of us learns and grows every day.”
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