Revamping mentorship in medicine

Why the current system fails underrepresented physicians — and tips to improve it


Mentoring is often promoted as an organizational practice to promote diversity and inclusion. New or established group members who want to further their careers look for a mentor to guide them toward success within a system by amplifying their strengths and accomplishments and defending and promoting them when necessary. But how can mentoring work if there isn’t a mentor?

Dr. Jacqueline Posada, a third-year resident in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at George Washington University, Washington

Dr. Jacqueline Posada

For underrepresented groups or marginalized physicians, it too often looks as if there are no mentors who understand the struggles of being a racial or ethnic minority group member or mentors who are even cognizant of those struggles. Mentoring is a practice that occurs within the overarching systems of practice groups, academic departments, hospitals, medicine, and society at large. These systems frequently carry the legacies of bias, discrimination, and exclusion. The mentoring itself that takes place within a biased system risks perpetuating institutional bias, exclusion, or a sense of unworthiness in the mentee. It is stressful for any person with a minority background or even a minority interest to feel that there’s no one to emulate in their immediate working environment. When that is the case, a natural question follows: “Do I even belong here?”

Before departments and psychiatric practices turn to old, surface-level solutions like using mentorship to appear more welcoming to underrepresented groups, leaders must explicitly evaluate their track record of mentorship within their system and determine whether mentorship has been used to protect the status quo or move the culture forward. As mentorship is inherently an imbalanced relationship, there must be department- or group-level reflection about the diversity of mentors and also their examinations of mentors’ own preconceived notions of who will make a “good” mentee.

At the most basic level, leaders can examine whether there are gaps in who is mentored and who is not. Other parts of mentoring relationships should also be examined: a) How can mentoring happen if there is a dearth of underrepresented groups in the department? b) What type of mentoring style is favored? Do departments/groups look for a natural fit between mentor and mentee or are they matched based on interests, ideals, and goals? and c) How is the worthiness for mentorship determined?

One example is the fraught process of evaluating “worthiness” among residents. Prospective mentors frequently divide trainees unofficially into a top-tier candidates, middle-tier performers who may be overlooked, and a bottom tier who are avoided when it comes to mentorship. Because this division is informal and usually based on extremely early perceptions of trainees’ aptitude and openness, the process can be subject to an individual mentor’s conscious and unconscious bias, which then plays a large role in perpetuating systemic racism. When it comes to these informal but often rigid divisions, it can be hard to fall from the top when mentees are buoyed by good will, frequent opportunities to shine, and the mentor’s reputation. Likewise, it can be hard to break out from the middle and bottom groups without a strong advocate or opportunities to demonstrate exceptional proficiency.

Dr. Forrester is consultation-liaison psychiatry fellowship training director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore

Dr. Anique Forrester

Below are three recommendations to consider for improving mentorship within departments:

1) Consider opportunities for senior mentors and potential mentees to interact with one another outside of assigned duties so that some mentorship relationships can be formed organically.

2) Review when mentorship relationships have been ineffective or unsuccessful versus productive and useful for both participants.

3) Increase opportunities for adjunct or former faculty who remain connected to the institution to also be mentors. This approach would open up more possibilities and could increase the diversity of available mentors.

If mentorship is to be part of the armamentarium for promoting equity within academia and workplaces alike, it must be examined and changed to meet the new reality.

Dr. Posada is assistant clinical professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington. She also serves as staff physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, also in Washington. She disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Forrester is consultation-liaison psychiatry fellowship training director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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