Modern Medical Mentorships

Some months ago, I got an email from a third year medical student asking if I would consider being her mentor for her Personal and Professional Development course for the next three years. She had attended a student obstetrics suturing workshop that I had facilitated and also had read my blog and loved my “passion and enthusiasm for the rural experience and for life in general.”

My initial reaction was to feel both very flattered and surprised (and also pretty chuffed that someone was reading my blog!). After all, I’m only in the infancy of my GP career, what wisdom do I possibly have to share?

It lead me to reflect on some of the mentors I’ve had in the past, both formal and informal.

My own Personal and Professional Development mentor from medical school was allocated by the university; a cynical older male, sub-specialist surgeon from a tertiary hospital who had lots of interesting stories to tell. But, as a young, female, future rural generalist I found it a bit hard to relate and didn’t feel that I gained much out of our discussions.

Thankfully, I’ve been lucky enough throughout my student and post-graduate training years to have had a number of GP supervisors who have been not only great clinical teachers, but also fantastic mentors in the broader sense. I am eternally grateful to them for their insights into the more philosophical matters like professional satisfaction, the pursuit of happiness and living a balanced life – in addition to their teachings on core topics like diabetes, asthma and depression.

More recently I’ve found mentors in somewhat unexpected places. Since starting out on my rural locum travels I haven’t been in any one clinic or hospital long enough to develop relationships with the experienced local doctors… And yet, via the magic of social media, I’ve been able to interact with some great, experienced doctors from all over Australia (and indeed, the world) to seek wise counsel regarding personal and professional challenges. Surely that fulfills the definition of a mentor as “a wise and trusted counsellor or teacher.” I admire them greatly for their dedication to quality practice, commitment to self-education and selfless contribution to the greater good, but how odd to think that some of my most influential contemporary mentors are people that I have never even met.

I’m also finding more and more that I’m seeking out different mentors for different aspects of my life. I have one friend who I look towards to help advise and inspire me to achieving my fitness goals, and others who have been roles models for my growing involvement in blogging and social media. There are some colleagues whom I try to emulate to improve my teaching skills, and others from whom I seek counsel regarding the best way to explore my leadership potential. I value the different perspective I get from male and female mentors; younger or more experienced mentors. Some of my mentors are actually more junior that me in the strictest sense of the career hierarchy, but I seek to learn from their experience in certain areas where I am weaker. Many of the people I consider to be my mentors probably don’t even realise that they are; some of them probably suspect that they are, although it has never been explicitly articulated.

What they all have in common is that they have qualities about them that I want to enhance in myself. In their different ways, they represent attributes of the person that I want to be.

Similarly, as mentors, I think we invest most in people in whom we see something of ourselves. We want to nurture those who are like us. These kind of connections are pretty hard to manufacture, so the best mentor-mentee relationships are not those which are allocated or formally arranged, but those that grow organically between two people who identify with one-another.

So back to my new student mentee: I applaud her for taking the more difficult option of selecting her own mentor. It can’t have been easy to approach a senior doctor out-of-the-blue with a request like that, but I hope she’ll get more out of it than I did with my surgeon mentor when I was in her position.

As for me, I think I’ll get something out of it too. I’m sure it will help me refine my mentoring skills and contemplate my own practice with a critical eye. If nothing else, it’s a great chance to reflect on how far I’ve come since I was the nervous 3rd year student who was scared about actually examining real patients and overwhelmed by how much there was to learn.

After all, medicine has always been based on an apprenticeship model. I have a great image of all of us doctors being links in a never-ending chain of teachers and learners, stretching all the way back to Hippocrates and continuing into the future for eternity …. or at least until we are all replaced by robots, heaven forbid!

I’d like to thank those wise and trusted counsellors who have helped me on my journey so far, although they may never know what a profound influence they have had on my life. I will feel a great sense of satisfaction if I can make half as much difference to someone else in turn.

With past supervisor and ongoing mentor, Tim Koh

With past supervisor and ongoing mentor, Tim Koh

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