The Importance of Mentoring in Preparing the Next Generation of Oncologists

By Dennie V. Jones, Jr., MD; and John Rhee, MD
Published: Monday, Mar 07, 2011
Since the time of Hippocrates, practicing the art of medicine has involved the passage of knowledge and experience from one generation of practitioners to the next. Unlike other fields of study in the sciences and humanities, the process of educating physicians tends to involve a much more intimate relationship between the instructors and trainees. While the earliest years of medical school education are usually carried out in the classroom, there is an early transition to education in small teams, often led by the attending and residents. During the latest years of residency (most often during subspecialty training), the relationship between instructors and trainees gains sufficient permanence; instructors will usually know the trainees well enough to provide detailed guidance in educational and career development. In this aspect, the fellowship training period provides the most intimate one-on-one training in a clinical setting. And, perhaps, the most developed form of this relationship is that of the mentor and mentee.

What is mentorship?

Mentorship has been defined as “a dynamic, reciprocal relationship in a work environment between an advanced career incumbent (mentor) and a beginner (protégé), aimed at the development of both.”1 Strictly speaking, “mentorship” indicates a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced (often more senior) individual helps a less experienced or knowledgeable individual who is usually newer to that particular organization. Mentorship should not be confused with similar methods of imparting knowledge, such as tutoring (or instructing, which is the dissemination of knowledge), coaching (which dwells on the development of skills), or serving as a role model (in which one provides examples of specific behaviors). Mentorship incorporates these aspects, but builds upon them with the addition of guidance in career development.

While formal mentorship programs were first launched in corporate America in the 1970s as a way to develop junior staff, they weren’t officially introduced into medical education until the 1990s.2 The mentoring process is now considered to be an essential responsibility of medical school faculty in an effort to enhance the educational mission, and is clearly helpful in encouraging career satisfaction and success.3,4 Despite its inherent added value, mentorship is often not deemed important by the institution (such time is not billable, after all) and thus, is often beset by the competing demands of clinical care and research on both the mentor and mentee. Although not all institutions may have a formal mentorship program in place, it should not deter fellows from being proactive and seeking out mentors in areas of common interest.

The benefits of having a mentor

Mentorship can accord significant potential benefits to fellows, such as providing access to networking, which may be one reason why those who are mentored tend to do well in institutions.1 Multiple studies have shown that having a mentor has a positive influence on overall career enhancement; one study even demonstrated that those who received mentoring were more than twice as likely to receive a promotion.5 Mentoring has also been associated with improvements in research, teaching, and patient care.6

A mentoring relationship can be very helpful when deciding on which specialty and subspecialty to pursue. Two of the major decisions that fellows must make are whether to specialize in hematology, oncology, or both; and whether to pursue a career in academics, private practice, or industry. The two decisions are actually closely related. For example, if one desires to enter into a private practice setting, it would be reasonable to become double board certified in hematology and oncology. While there is a move among larger practices to develop some tumor or disease-specific expertise and local recognition, most private practitioners must still function in a fairly general manner.

By itself, hematology as a discipline is more or less restricted to academic centers and larger hospitals, especially nonmalignant hematology. If such arrangements are made between a private practice and either a university or consortium of practices, it may also be possible to participate in “bedside” teaching of students and residents, as well as larger phase II (proof of concept) and phase III (confirmation of activity or benefit) trials, although there may be very little time, infrastructure, or opportunity to initiate and support one’s own clinical research interests. On the other hand, a career in academic clinical research affords many of these opportunities, though usually with somewhat smaller patient loads, protected time to carry out research and teaching, and a lesser amount of financial compensation than seen in private practice.

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