Mentorship is essential to healthcare teaching, learning, and practice. Excellent mentors lead by example and guide mentees, informed by empathic listening and reflections on their own journeys.
Mentorship has been central to both the practice and the instruction of medicine throughout history. From one-on-one physician-student apprenticeships in the early centuries of medical training, to college advisory deans and research mentors today, mentorship has always played a critical role in the development of clinically excellent clinicians.
The word “mentor” means an experienced and trusted advisor. It comes from Mentōr, the name of the advisor, Telemachus, in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Mentorship holds great significance in medicine. As medical trainees absorb the culture of clinical practice—transforming from eager pre-med matriculants, to med students, to residents, to fellows, to independently practicing physicians—they must navigate the “hidden curriculum” of the clinical wards. Trainees must learn how to give authentic presence to sick and vulnerable human beings.
When incoming students take their oath during the white coat ceremony, they pledge to enter into the lives of those who are suffering with grace, courage, and the intention to heal. Learning how to live out this pledge is no easy feat and it can’t be done alone. It’s one thing to witness the practice of medicine by shadowing physicians—it’s wholly another to become part of it. The practitioners who surround the student during his or her transition into the clinical world show the student how to live out out his or her oath. During this stage of formation, the trainee is simultaneously a sponge and a clay sculpture, soaking up the minutiae of the clinical environment while honing the skills that will shape his or her character as a physician. Intentionally or not, clinical instructors, preceptors, and attending physicians who surround students at this time shape and influence the way trainees learn to practice.
When I think of the best clinician mentor in my own journey, a particular PICU attending comes to mind. He welcomed me onto the ward with a warm and friendly aura that conveyed wisdom and approachability. He explicitly stated that I could ask questions at any time and clearly articulated what he did and did not expect me to know. He praised correct answers and reasonable guesses, something that often goes unacknowledged in medical training. This allowed me to feel comfortable continuing to ask questions, even as a pre-med student. He carried himself with a particular grace in the presence of patients and families and made sure to never leave a patient’s room with questions unanswered. He entrusted me with increasing responsibilities bit by bit, mentally taking note of my progress along the way, from shadowing patient visits to researching and reporting on clinical cases alongside the team of med students, to eventually presenting patients on morning rounds. He went out of his way to ask me many questions, not only about clinical knowledge but also regarding my thoughts on a particular patient as a whole during rounds. He emphasized that I could come by the PICU whenever I wanted, and he offered to be a resource to me even beyond that summer.
This experience as a mentee taught me a great deal about how to be an excellent mentor, both educating and empowering learners. Here’s what I learned:
1. Lead by example.
Whether you know it or not, you’re a mentor. Learners are always observing you. Be conscious of this as you practice. Treat every patient encounter as a model interaction, both for the benefit of the patient and the student.
2. Think about your own mentors.
Identify two or three clinicians who had the most impact on the way you practice today. What did they do or say that stuck with you? Why do you think their words or actions remained in your memory? Choose one of their practices— whether it be words of affirmation, active listening, or conversations over coffee—and incorporate it into your own role as a mentor.
3. Reflect on your journey and what you wish you had known.
Think about your own path to where you are today. What did you learn along the way that would have been helpful to know earlier? Share this with your mentees in concrete pearls of wisdom. Give succinct and memorable advice, such as the practice of asking, “Anything else I can do for you?” before leaving any patient room.
4. Listen to your mentees and ask questions.
While sharing advice and insight is helpful, it often pays to listen first, before you share. This enables you to tailor your advice to the particular mentee because everyone is different. Pay attention to the learner’s tendencies and any areas where they seem uncertain. See if you can piece together how you can be most helpful to this particular individual. Ask questions and check in along the way to learn what is (or isn’t) working.
5. Make connections.
If a trainee expresses interest in a particular field of clinical practice or research, offer to connect him or her with other mentors in that field.
Remember that mentorship is dynamic, not static, and evolves as the trainee develops. Every mentor is also a mentee, and this network of clinician support can bolster us as we continue to grow and acquire insight on what it means to heal and how to give the best care to each patient.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.