An exploration of the role of mentoring in the medical community, medical education, and learning in general.
Ronald G. Wheeland, M.D.Recently, my six year old grandson stumbled and fell and cut his chin, requiring “stitches.” It was pretty traumatic since he never had “stitches” before and he was worried. Once it was all over and proved to be a painless adventure, he called me to tell me all about it and proudly said: “And, Grandpa, it didn’t even hurt! How did he learn to do that?” I thought for a short moment and then replied that his doctor probably started learning early in school all about “stitches” and kept reading and learning from his teachers and mentors until he could sew up a cut like his without it hurting. He was happy with this answer which made me glad since I was sure his normal high level of curiosity would have led him to ask me a much tougher question, that being: “What is a mentor.”
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No matter, this interaction with my grandson starting me thinking about the whole process of medical education, learning in general, and the role of “formal medical education” (medical school and residency) and “informal medical education” (under which I’ll include reading, medical meetings and mentoring). Since most of us have a pretty clear understanding about the “formal medical educational” learning processes that occur in medical school and residency, I won’t discuss those here. What I would like to focus on is the “informal medical educational” process, especially in regards to mentoring and how it is both dependent upon and highly interactive with formal medical education.
So what is mentoring? I believe mentoring is a collegial, supportive, one-on-one interaction, usually between two people, where information, skills or advice is shared. This should not suggest that mentoring requires a “superior or senior” to “inferior or junior” relationship to work. In fact, I have seen very effective mentoring done between two individuals of the same age and level of educational achievement. I believe that virtually anyone with the proper desire, a humanistic sharing philosophy of life, a little bit of time, and a certain degree of patience, can be an effective mentor. However, in order to be most effective, mentoring does generally requires a level of formal education, experience, or understanding that can be used as a starting point and then finessed, honed, or strengthened into something better by the mentor.
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I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some fantastic mentors throughout my professional career. Early on, I got to know Merlin K. DuVal, M.D., the dean of my medical school, very well from having served as a class officer. The patience, understanding, and support he demonstrated during a rather turbulent time in the young medical school’s development served as a role model for me throughout my career. Effective mentors, like my dean, seem to be able to provide this kind of guidance almost without trying. I never sat down with him and asked me to be my mentor, he just was! Later, in my junior academic career I was mentored by Walter H.C. Burgdorf, M.D. (who recently passed away) in how to be an effective medical writer. The countless revisions he recommended in my first manuscript not only taught me about patience (on his part) but also about how to be more effective in the communication of ideas and the use of newer technologies.
Formal education and mentoring share a number of similarities, including a willingness to share information with others; provide new ideas or insights to better deal with some unsolved or difficult problem; and a desire to be supportive and helpful. There are no limits as to where education or mentoring can prove beneficial. Over the years, I have served as a mentor for dozens of medical students, young physicians and residents. The greatest reward is hearing from some of them that they felt that I played a role in their success. There simply is no greater reward than that! So, I urge those of you reading this to volunteer your time, energy and knowledge right now and serve as a mentor to a colleague, medical student or junior partner. I promise you it will be worth it!
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The day after I started writing this editorial my grandson called indeed to ask what a mentor was. After I provided him with a brief summary of what I’ve written above, he replied: “Well, I’ve got to go now and mentor my sister (who is three years old)!” At least he got my message and I hope others will as well.