Mentorship in Medicine: A Resident's View

Apr 28, 2016
Author: 
Jim Oldfield

Ju-Yoon YoonTraining for medical residents is more complex than ever before. Family medicine residents train years longer than their peers a generation ago; specialists choose from more specialties and often do sub-specialty training. Mentorship is critical, and today many residents seek multiple mentors. But what makes for a good mentorship experience?

Ju-Yoon Yoon is a second-year resident in anatomical pathology in the Department of Laboratory Medicine (LMP) and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto. He is also the LMP representative for the Professional Association of Residents of Ontario (PARO). He recently spoke with Faculty of Medicine writer Jim Oldfield about the mentorship environment at U of T, the mentor-mentee relationship and how students can make the most of mentorships.

In your first year as PARO rep, you organized a mentorship event for LMP residents. How did that go?

It went well. We invited several faculty members to be mentors and set up a casual pizza dinner so residents could ask them about career planning, work-life balance, research — anything they had questions about. A dozen students and five faculty members came out. There haven't been a lot of events like that for residents the last few years, so I think it filled a need. We surveyed the residents who attended afterward and most found it useful, so all in all it was a very positive experience. We did a similar event for the Department of Radiation Oncology and this year and a couple of surgical programs have expressed interest as well.

How would you describe the mentorship environment for residents and fellows in Toronto?

It has a number of strengths. There is great diversity in the roles that mentors take on — clinical and research, in academic and community-based hospitals. That's a huge benefit for trainees. And then the sheer number of faculty members in LMP and other departments means students will find faculty with different personalities, training backgrounds, interests and geographical locations, which are all factors they consider when searching for mentors. So in those regards, U of T offers a great environment for mentorship. At same time, so much choice means making mentorship decisions can be difficult. It's kind of an embarrassment-of-riches situation.

Are there many formal mentorship programs to help students make those decisions?

Some departments, like psychiatry and radiology, have formal programs. But there are also informal events and lots of one-on-one mentorship. I think there is a role for both formal and informal programs. When I was with CITAC we did a literature review of studies on mentorship programs in medicine. We concluded that mentorship can be beneficial in all stages of training for clinician-investigators, and we found that a number of factors are linked to successful mentorship, including inspired mentees who take ownership of the mentor-mentee relationship and the training of faculty members to be good mentors. But if the mentorship programs are not well-designed, the literature suggests they can actually be counter-productive. Sometimes a mentee or the mentor gets disenchanted after a bad relationship. No single mentor will meet all the needs of a mentee, and thinking outside the traditional dyad model of mentorship can be very helpful.

Do most residents today develop a network of mentors?

I’m not aware of any good data on this, so I can only offer anecdotal observation. Early in my medical training, I saw that physicians juggle many different roles. As a pathologist-in-training and aspiring researcher, it was clear that I would benefit from having multiple mentors. I think most residents do form a network of mentors, but these networks are quite variable and depend on the learner's needs. As well, in good mentor-mentee relationships, mentorship often arises in the background of friendship. So in this regard, I think the resident’s personality is a big factor that influences the size the mentorship network and the depth of the relationships.

What factors are critical for a good mentor-mentee relationship?

Personality fit is key. It's much easier for a trainee to strike up a conversation or discuss issues without feeling intimidated when there is ease of communication. It's also important for mentors to have a genuine interest in mentoring. Some mentors go to great lengths to help students and that can really facilitate bonding. As for mentees, they need to be genuinely interested in learning from their mentors. Nothing kills the relationship like apathy on the part of the student. And it's important for students to remember that faculty members have many roles and are often busy, so they may not be able to respond to an inquiry right away. It's really about mutual respect, personal connection and shared values.

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