What you need to know about mentoring other doctors

Defining the goals of the mentoring relationship can be useful to clarify expectations.

Being a mentor to other doctors is one of the responsibilities that you may hold at various points in your career. Most doctors have had one or more informal mentors, but few have had a prescribed or long-term mentor that has been a consistent guide for many years. There has been an increase in formal mentoring courses for physicians, and sometimes physician mentoring is structured as a systematized process.

Many hospitals have adopted programs for physician mentorship, pairing up senior physicians with junior level doctors. And professional physician coaches offer programs as well. If you are considering mentoring other physicians, it’s helpful to clarify what type of guidance you intend to provide and to communicate your availability to your mentee—whether you are participating in a formal program or providing informal guidance.

Establish the type of mentoring

Physicians may look to mentors for a variety of needs. For example, you might have a skill set or you may have reached a position that other doctors would like to achieve. It’s important to recognize your own strengths and to use these strengths to provide guidance in the area that you are familiar with.

Defining the goals of the mentoring relationship can be useful to clarify expectations. If you will spend time guiding a medical student, resident, or a junior physician, you might be happy to do so casually as they navigate their new role. Or you might only consider it worth the effort if they will move forward to progress in a specific way. Knowing your own style will help you determine what type of mentoring you are capable of. And if goal setting is important to you as a mentor, then be clear about your expectations and provide the junior physician who you are mentoring with next steps that you expect them to take before your next meeting.

Frequency

Another important aspect of setting expectations involves the frequency of your meetings. With an informal mentoring process, you might not necessarily feel the need to provide a set structure. One drawback of this approach is that the physician who you are mentoring might hesitate to contact you—or could end up contacting you more than you would like. Finding a common ground for the frequency and formality of your meetings can be helpful.

If you are going to be checking in and getting updates on their progress, it can be a good idea to schedule your next meeting and to agree on the frequency and intervals of your meetings. This can help you define your own responsibilities and help the junior physician understand what they should expect from you.

Duration

Mentoring another doctor can be a long-term process that lasts for years, but sometimes it isn’t possible to continue mentoring someone after they have reached an advanced level in their career. You might not be equipped for guiding someone beyond a particular goalpost that is your niche. After they have reached a given point, you may become more of a peer than a mentor, and you may remain friends for the long term.

Make sure you are up to the task

Mentoring other physicians can feel flattering, but it’s best to acknowledge when you aren’t the right person to deliver what a potential mentee needs. If a young doctor looking to you for guidance is highly ambitious, it’s important that they aren’t under the impression that you are more successful than you actually are. And if a young doctor is looking for moral support, you might only be able to provide that type of encouragement if you are a deeply confident person yourself.

If you are feeling overwhelmed or intimidated in your job as a physician, consider whether it is the right time for you to take someone else under your wing. As they say on airplanes, put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else with theirs. Sometimes bowing out of a responsibility that you can't carry out is the most fair and honest thing to do.

Further reading

Sheri K, Too JYJ, Chuah SEL, Toh YP, Mason S, Radha Krishna LK. A scoping review of mentor training programs in medicine between 1990 and 2017. Med Educ Online. 2019 Dec;24(1):1555435. doi: 10.1080/10872981.2018.1555435