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Pairing mentors and mentees who share similar passions is critical to the success of a formal mentoring program.
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AAOS Now

Published 7/1/2012
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Chad A. Krueger, MD; Daniel J. Stinner, MD; James R. Ficke, MD

Mentoring in Resident Education: How to Make it Work

Mentoring can be a powerful professional development tool and is widely considered an important aspect of resident training. Although several orthopaedic organizations have mentoring programs, most residency programs don’t use formal programs.

According to the results of a survey published in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (2009), 96 percent of residents thought that mentorship was critical to their education and development as orthopaedic surgeons. However, less than half of the respondents actually had a mentor and only 17 percent were highly satisfied with the mentoring environment.

Although the mentoring relationship may not be best for everyone, the following suggestions may be helpful for residents and attending physicians who would like to build such a relationship.

Make a commitment
To ensure a successful mentoring relationship, both participants must be willing to commit both time and effort. Forced participation can doom a mentorship program. A healthy mentoring program takes a lot of time and hard work by everyone involved. Individuals who aren’t willing to put forth the effort required should not get involved.

Although being in a mentoring relationship has obvious benefits, being a noncommittal mentor or mentee can be worse than not participating at all. Mentoring relationships that fail can have a negative impact on the entire organization and make participants averse to future mentoring opportunities.

Selecting a mentor
The next objective is to select pairs; arbitrary assignments are usually unsuccessful. As in any close relationship, mentor and mentee will need to establish expectations, goals, and boundaries. Mentees can take the initiative to identify senior mentors whom they respect and with whom they would want to establish a relationship.

Pairing mentors and mentees who share similar passions is critical. Mentoring provides a great platform for residents and attending physicians to interact on any topic that can have a positive impact. Often, the relationship may be based on shared specialty or professional interests, but mentoring can also focus on professional and personal aspirations that do not necessarily pertain to orthopaedics.

Residents who want to develop leadership skills, figure out how to best run a private practice, or become involved in politics can find mentors who have great insight into these topics and would enjoy sharing their knowledge with someone who has a similar passion.

Incorporating an optional midyear “shuffle” may also be helpful. With this approach, mentors and mentees who are not satisfied with their mentoring arrangement can opt to find a new partner without negative connotations.

Keep it personal
Mentoring is a personal process. A ‘forced’ or ‘check box’ activity wastes everyone’s time. Mentors and mentees want to interact with someone whom they believe can offer them practical knowledge. Mentees want the interactions to be valuable and tangible; mentors don’t want to waste their time with ‘some kid’ who clearly doesn’t care about what they have to say.

Often, one of the biggest hurdles faced by mentoring programs is the simple lack of interaction between the mentor and the mentee. Both mentors and mentees can easily say, “I’m too busy; let’s reschedule” and never actually meet.

In our program, mentors and mentees intentionally establish fixed, mutually compatible meeting dates and times. For some, the optimal time might be every other week for an hour before the workday gets started. Others might meet for dinner once a month. The key is finding a time that suits both parties to minimize distractions.

Choose a format
Mentoring can take many different forms—from shadowing to book clubs. Shadowing exposes mentees to activities in which they typically do not participate, such as a department meeting, an outside activity, or a business lunch. The book club—reading assigned chapters and discussing them, with allowances for digressions into more practical or personal topics—builds a solid foundation for the relationship.

Even without a formal structure, learning can, and often will, occur. The point is to spend quality time interacting without being distracted by work.

Mentoring is a flexible process that can be tailored and changed on an as-needed basis. Additionally, the more senior member of the team does not always have to be the mentor. Junior members can take the lead with an unfamiliar topic or provide a different perspective on an issue.

Reap the benefits
In a positive mentoring relationship, both parties benefit. Indeed, the relationships established may be one of the biggest benefits of a mentoring program because they foster ongoing dialogue about various topics outside the formal mentoring structure and can be a valuable resource for all participants.

Mentoring programs can also stimulate participants to assume greater leadership roles. For example, staff members who have benefited from mentoring programs could encourage other staff members to participate. Such subtle changes can often have a profound, positive effect on morale.

Mentoring also helps residents develop the skills necessary to build their own ‘Board of Directors.’ Today’s residents must be able to build strong relationships with a variety of people in diverse positions. Developing the social skills that mentoring requires can help a resident succeed.

We encourage residents to seek mentors and residency programs to establish functional mentoring programs. We would appreciate receiving feedback from mentors and mentees based on what has or hasn’t worked for them so that we can develop a list of DOs and DON’Ts for a follow-up article on mentorship during residency.

Chad A. Krueger, MD, and Daniel J. Stinner, MD, are residents at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, where James R. Ficke, MD, is the chairman of the department of orthopaedics and rehabilitation.

Editor’s note: The opinions or assertions contained herein are the private views of the authors and are not to be construed as official or as reflecting the views of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

Additional Resources:
Flint JH, Jahangir AA, Browner, BD, Mehta, S. The Value of Mentorship in Orthopaedic Surgery Resident Education: The Residents' Perspective J. Bone Joint Surg. Am., Apr 2009; 91 (4); 1017-1022. doi: 10.2106/JBJS.H.0093