The word mentor comes to us from Mentor who, in ancient Greek myth, was the counselor to Telemachus, the wandering son of Ulysses.

Today, the typical mentor relationship is perhaps somewhat less exotic, but no less important to a young professional’s successful training if the mentorship is healthy and well managed by both mentor and mentee.

In this CareerPhysician article we explore the qualities and characteristics of a successful mentor relationship, from the distinct perspectives of both parties in the mentorship.

Who’s a Mentor?
Although being a mentor is so much more than simply teaching, academic physicians, residentsfellows, and senior residents are mentors and role models whether we appreciate these roles or not. It’s about being a Physician Advisor.

Post-graduate medical education in the United States has essentially come to be based upon an apprenticeship model, thus promoting the central role and development of the mentor.   Within the clinical and academic training setting a wealth of knowledge sharing occurs across the intimate communication lines established between the resident and Chief, fellow or director.

Even in formal, traditional mentor programs, matching up the right mentors with the pool of students entails a selection process with a high risk of unsatisfying results.  While in a residency teaching environment, we are often dependant on the good luck of the draw in getting this match-up well aligned.  It’s important that residents and their potential mentors make every mutual effort to establish a mentorship relationship that works well to the benefit of both.

We’ve learned that mentoring is a central ingredient in a physician’s personal and professional development.  And, as the ACGME highlights, participation in mentoring programs is closely linked to a physician’s professional development, career growth and advancement

Good Mentorships
Unfortunately, not everyone in a mentorship role is a good mentor. Mentoring is far more than simply imparting information – it involves passing on true wisdom along with an abiding passion for the skills and expertise.  Creating a productive and rewarding mentorship depends upon the mentor’s and student’s ability to truly engage with each other on levels beyond simply sharing mechanical, clinical or academic knowledge and skills.

One of the most important factors for establishing a successful mentorship is a strong and sincere feeling of mutual respect between the mentor and the mentee. This respect is necessary to support the free, open and frank communication that is an essential component of the relationship.

Good Mentors
One of the key characteristics of a good mentor is their willingness, if not eagerness, to be questioned by their mentee.  They are open and ready to actually learn from the mentee.

By example, a good mentor deletes their ego from the learning equation.   They commit to frequent, quality interactions with their mentee.   They know that focused and specific feedback is essential to a successful mentorship

A good mentor will assess and appreciate the strengths of their student, and build each learning experience upon these strengths, thus creating an environment where the student feels confident and supported.   At some point, negative feedback will be required as part of the teaching/learning process, and a good mentor will be sure to accompany it with frequent, positive feedback.

The model mentor takes little for granted and thus is always ready and eager to explain their reasoning behind a particular point or issue.  They know that it may not be obvious to the less experienced.

Most important of all, a good mentor is available.  This, in some ways, is the greatest challenge of being a successful mentor, since they will be leading a life – both personal and professional – equally full of other demands.  But committing to a mentorship often means making time for the student, when it feels there’s no time to be had.   In the long run, this consistent availability will pay off handsome and gratifying rewards for both the mentor and the student.

Good Programs
Although the mentor relationship is a central component of the medical residency training model, there are numerous examples of how it is also extended to more formal and wide-spread programs.

One example is the successful program, funded largely by Sight Savers, called the Ophthalmic Medical Assistants training course first launched in Africa in the 1980s.   The course enjoys a stellar reputation and attracts four applicants for every place.  In 2003 there were 25 students enrolled from seven African countries.

The OMA Cataract Surgeons program is offered to ophthalmic paramedics who can qualify as cataract surgeons. Their skills are urgently needed as cataract accounts for half of all blindness in many African countries, and there are few ophthalmologists in the public sector.

Based upon an intensive 12-month mentoring training model in IOL microsurgery, the program produces a new student every 3 months. These students are experienced ophthalmic paramedics and will enjoy an ongoing one-to-one mentoring relationship with an ophthalmologist. To date, the project has trained 20 cataract surgeons serving patient populations in badly under-served Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another expanded mentor model is based upon doctor-student matched demographics, as in the case where doctors of color focus on recruiting and mentoring medical students of color or women physicians launch programs targeting women medical students and residents.

The University of Vermont’s College of Medicine chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association recently created a program to aggressively promote women in medicine, creating a mentoring project that links students with female faculty.   Much like the OMA ophthalmology program, UVM’s mentoring project places women medical students into clinics and practices a year earlier than usual, giving them advanced real-world clinical experience under the direct tutelage of a physician mentor.

Not all formal mentoring programs focus exclusively on clinical training.  The University of Mississippi’s Medical Center offers a mentoring program that matches third-year students with community-based family practice physicians.

Program directors point out that such community-based experience offers students an education they can’t get in a class setting, allowing them to experience, first-hand, how to balance personal and professional life, how to establish patient flow and billing systems and how to develop personal rapport with patients.

Effective and successful mentoring models are not limited to a formal program structure.  It is a rare physician who cannot recount tales of being aided by a more senior and experienced colleague in the middle of the night when they called for advice on a particularly vexing case or patient crisis.  When medical knowledge and expertise is shared across generations of physicians in such an intimate and selfless way, it’s hard to imagine any textbook or CME class having the same lasting effect.

Mentoring Benefits
Most physicians will tell you that, working from 7.a.m until 9 each night doesn’t leave much time for a personal life of their own, let alone making time to mentor a new or aspiring physician.   But almost any physician that has served as a mentor will praise the system as a critical element of their professional as well as personal satisfaction.

Being a mentor you will find how important it is to be available to those students or apprentices who need to bounce ideas off you or unburden a problem.  Good Mentors will tell you that mentoring actually helps doctors become better teachers.

Physicians report that, if their role as teacher were limited to simply serving as a clinical instructor, they would feel unrequited in their job.   They site the rewards of knowing that, in a very real and satisfying way, they are returning the favor of those physicians who mentored them.

And when you ask doctors about the benefits of being mentored, most will site richly-remembered experiences of mentoring under doctors, in business 30 years, with loyal patients and employees, running practices with ease and success.

Inevitably, they will tell your that spending 2-3 years in such a practice or clinical environment with a caring, knowledgeable and accessible mentor helped them to become the good doctor that they are today.

Mentoring, clearly, can be mutually beneficial to both mentors and mentees alike, when the mentorship match is a good one, and a healthy, dynamic relationship is nurtured and grown.

Mentor Checklist
Here’s a recap of pointers – both general as well as specific to your ophthalmology residency program – that will help you become a successful and gratified mentor —

•    Be approachable
•    Be available
•    Foster mutual respect
•    Interact often
•    Look for strengths
•    Provide frequent feedback
•    Be supportive
•    Provide program-specific tips for success
•    Schedule periodic rotational meetings
•    Be empathetic (you’ve been there before!)
•    Elicit career specific goals
•    Promote lifelong education
•    Promote the AAO as a resource
•    Assist with future (contacts, letter of recommendation)
•    Know the pros & cons of fellowship training
•    Know and share the deadlines for applying to fellowship positions
•    Explore the business and career advancement aspects of ophthalmology, including coding, starting a practice, community involvement and providing feedback to referring physicians

About the Author:

Wesley D. Millican, MBA, CEO and Physician Talent Officer of CareerPhysician Advisors, LP, and CareerPhysician, LLC, provides comprehensive talent solutions for academic children’s hospitals, colleges of medicine and academic medical centers across the nation. He possesses a longstanding passion for career development of all young physicians and serves as a go to career resource for training program directors and their residents and fellows. In continuing his commitment to the “future of medicine”, Mr. Millican speaks nationally at residency and fellowship programs. His Launch Your Career® Series is a proven resource for today’s residents and fellows and has served as a go to resource for program directors over the last 15 years.