The Dangers of Mandated Mentorship in Medical School

I knew I could because she showed me the way. I became because she never let me think otherwise.

From student to fellow, resident to intern, the medical professional has long embraced, acknowledged, and existed in a realm where mentorship is a key component to learning and development. It is the relationships with those that guide us through the otherwise undulating journey, which is medical school and beyond, that we require & covet.

Unique in its structure, a careful blend of encouragement and honesty, the mentor-mentee relationship is an investment of time, energy, and the belief in one’s potential. As Michelle Obama states in her book Becoming, “You invest more when you know you’re invested in.” Not to be taken for granted, this respected partnership lays a framework in which medical students build their education and professional acumen. The desire to guide and mentor cannot be artificially manufactured, nor can genuine connection be easily developed. Yet, every year, students enter their tumultuous first year of medical school and are assigned mentors by virtue of something as arbitrary as their last names.

Contractually obligated to mentor students, faculty enter a realm where they themselves might feel uncomfortable and unprepared. The relationship between student and mentor becomes a means to an end, an obligated task of mandated scheduled meetings and depersonalized analyses of test scores. Medical education has become a juxtaposition of the technical with the personal, an interplay between modern day teaching and a century’s-old profession. The in-person relationship between students and instructors has been replaced by email chains due to lectures being video or audio recorded, with students relying heavily on online supplemental materials. Faculty rarely know the students whom they instruct, which enhances the difficulty to foster a connection and dialogue with the student community they are tasked with guiding.

If it is an institution’s policy that all faculty must take on the role as mentors, then too should it be a requirement to have faculty take sensitivity training or workshops conducted by that institution’s wellness or counseling department. To be able to elicit empathy during vulnerability is a trait medical education places in high regard, so too should it be placed in the objectives of its faculty mentoring program. Faculty, often removed from the pedagogy associated with administrative concerns facing students and their education, should also become more up to date with policies affecting their mentees in order to provide more informed advice.

Words have power on their own, even though we choose to give them meaning. The words and actions of a mentor can have lasting implications that reverberate in a student’s mind, challenging their beliefs, changing their trajectory, and encroaching upon their mental health. If we are to become advocates for patients, then we too must learn to be advocates for ourselves and our education. We should be tasked with searching for those individuals who can serve as our mentors and steward us in a direction of confidence and achievement while still applying a firmness through vulnerability and honesty. In tasking us with the responsibility to find our mentors during our first year, we tighten the reins of a loosening system. We demonstrate trust in a student’s decision-making abilities and, in turn, them as future physicians.

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