Printed from:

Why Mentorship Is Important to You and to Family Medicine

Samuel Cullison, MD

(Fam Med 2014;46(8):645-6.)

These six doctors were among those who changed my life:

• Jack Colwill, MD—past chair of FM at University of Missouri-Columbia

• Sherwood Baker, MD—former FM faculty at University of Missouri-Columbia

• Paul Young, MD—former FM faculty at University of Missouri-Columbia

• Jack Leversee, MD—former FM faculty at University of Washington

• Joseph Feek, MD—former practice partner in Monroe, WA

• Richard Layton, MD—former program director, Providence FM Residency-Seattle

The names above are a partial list of my mentors in medical school, residency, and early practice years plus after my transition to an academic career.

What would your list look like?

What is a mentor? What impact does having a mentor provide to the mentee? How do you select a mentor? Should you serve as a mentor during your career?

This is a timely topic, since STFM at its 2014 Annual Spring Conference in San Antonio this past May featured mentorship as a theme for the gathering. Each keynote speaker briefly and touchingly spoke of a mentor important to their career during his/her presentation. Subsequently, hundreds of our members donated to the STFM foundation on behalf of their past mentors.

What Is a Mentor?


Mentorship is defined as a “dynamic, reciprocal relationship within a work environment between an advanced career incumbent (mentor) and a beginner (protégé) aimed at promoting the development of both.”1 I would caution the reader that this is rarely an assigned role in my view, such as with a faculty advisor. The mentoring relationship is a mutually agreed upon interaction that requires bilateral consent as well as chemistry. An advisor can evolve into mentor if the substrate incidentally proves fertile over time. However, assignment is rarely a good start to that process. An advisor helps a learner progress through training while integrally involved in formal performance evaluation. A mentor provides informal feedback to the mentee, but the relationship becomes more guarded if the former is an assigned participant in the official advancement/promotion process.

What Impact Does Having a Mentor Provide to the Mentee?


Why would a mentee seek a mentor? Stamm and Buddeberg-Fischer2found that having a mentor had independent positive impacts on objective and subjective career success. Research by Sambunyak et al has shown that having a mentor impacts the mentee through positive effects such as “personal development (including promotion and career satisfaction), career guidance, career and specialty choice. as well as research productivity.”

Stange and Hekelman3 pointed out in their article “Mentoring Needs and Family Medicine Faculty” “that not only must the mentee take an active role in seeking a mentor but that a self-analysis of personal mentorship needs by the mentee was essential.” Often multiple mentors4 were needed simultaneously in order to meet the totality of one’s needs. So perhaps the operant thinking should not be about finding the perfect mentor, but rather finding several mentors, each offering unique contributions to one’s future career development and personal needs. It may not take a village, but it likely will require more than one mentor. There is an important lesson in this, which is to not wait for the perfect mentor but rather to recognize that each of several (many?) partially but imperfectly fitting mentors will oftentimes together best meet the mentees needs.

They describe the domain of needs met by a mentor(s) into five categories: (1) professional socialization, (2) role modeling, (3) nurturing, (4) teaching, and (5) advocacy

How Do You Choose a Mentor?


Cho, Ramanan, and Feldman,5 in their article “Defining the Ideal Qualities of Mentorship” found five themes emerging as characteristics of outstanding mentors:

• Admirable characteristics: both personal (compassionate, enthusiastic, generous, honest, insightful, selfless, and wise) and professional (collaborative, intellectual, skilled clinician and teacher)

• Mentors acting as career guides: creating a plan, tailoring to individual mentee, providing opportunities, and concrete activities

• Time commitment: availability, duration, and quality

• Support for personal/professional balance

• Legacy of mentoring: impact of mentoring on willingness to become mentor later in one’s career

Debated in literature1,6 is whether racial, ethnic, cultural, or gender match is essential to a good mentor-mentee outcome. White males tended to feel these factors were not important. Others tended to vary in their opinions, with some women and racial minorities feeling that it was very important. However, they also found it difficult to find matches who were more senior in their careers.

Whether to Serve as a Mentor During One’s Career?


Why would a senior faculty member agree to be a mentor? An obvious answer is the impact a family physician faculty who serves as a mentor has on the mentee’s specialty choice:7 ie, growing the family medicine pipeline. Role modeling by family physician faculty is one of the best ways to impact the supply of our specialty through its effect on the choice of specialty by trainees and on the mentee’s career success once choosing to become family physicians. Also (while time-consuming at times), the opportunity to impact our specialty by those faculty who have chosen it as their life’s work has rewards that are transcendent—both intellectual and emotional.

Successful mentoring8 is characterized by reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, creating a personal connection, and shared

So it would seem that nearly everyone should have one or more mentoring relationships to ensure professional satisfaction and success.

The problem is that many trainees and faculty do not have a mentor in their life. Less than 50% of medical students and residents report a mentor. Following completion of training, physician faculty in various specialties report that less than 20% have ever had a mentor.1

So Now the Punch Line:


What is your program or department doing to encourage mentorship? Are trainees and new faculty provided education about the importance of mentorship and how to find a mentor? Are mid- and late-career faculty provided incentives and the time necessary (on the clock) to serve as mentors, as well as assistance in how to be a successful mentor?

I challenge each of us at our next faculty meeting to have a discussion about the current state of mentoring in our programs and developing a process improvement plan about how to make it better.

Our specialty depends on it!



Correspondence: Address correspondence to Dr Cullison, Methodist Health System Dallas, 1441 N. Beckley Avenue, Dallas, TX 75203. 214-947-2356. Fax: 214-947-2358.

  1. Sambunjak D, Straus SE, Marusic A. Mentoring in academic medicine: a systematic review. JAMA 2006 Sep 6;296(9): 1103-15. PMID: 16954490.
  2. Stamm M, Buddeberg-Fischer B. The impact of mentoring during postgraduate training on doctors’ career success. Med Educ 2011;45:488-96. PMID: 21486324.
  3. Stange KC, Hekelman FP. Mentoring needs and family medicine faculty. Fam Med 1990 May-June;22(3):183-5. PMID: 2347444.
  4. Koppman RJ, Theidke C. Views of family medicine department chairs about mentoring junior faculty. Med Teach 2005; 27:734-7. PMID: 16451897.
  5. Cho CS, Tamanan RA, Feldman MD. Defining the dieal qualities of mentorship: a qualitative analysis of the characteristics of outstanding mentors. Am J Med 2011;124:453-8. PMID: 21531235.
  6. Williams LL, Levine JB, Malhotra S, Holtzheimer P. The good-enough mentoring relationship. Acad Psychiatry 2004; 28:111-5. PMID: 15298862.
  7. Campos-Outcalt D, Midtling JE. Family medicine role models at US medical schools. Why their relative numbers are declining. Arch Fam Med 1993 Aug;2(8):827-32. PMID:8111511.
  8. Strauss SE, Johnson MO, Marquez C, Feldman MD. Characteristics of successful and failed mentoring relationships: a qualitative study across two academic health centers. Acad Med 2013 Jan;88(1):82-9. PMID: 23165266.

Copyright 2018 by Society of Teachers of Family Medicine