by Gerald Zarlengo, MD, Chairman & CEO, COPIC Insurance Company

“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”

— Denzel Washington

I believe one of the most overlooked aspects of having a successful career in medicine is finding the right mentors. Over the years, I have been fortunate to work with several outstanding physicians who invested their time to help me learn and grow. They were smart, tough, compassionate, and understood the importance of passing down pearls of wisdom from one generation to the next.

The knowledge I gained from these mentors–from honing my technical skills to developing patient communication skills–greatly influenced the physician I became and who I am to this day. It also opened my eyes to the amount of valuable insight exchanged through mentor-mentee interactions and the bond that occurs because of the shared commitment to patients.

A great example of a mentoring program is the Surgical Mentorship Pilot Project led by Bruce Waring, MD. The COPIC Medical Foundation recently provided grant funding that will be used for the implementation of this program designed for early-career surgeons to enhance the technical and leadership aspects of a safe and successful surgery practice. The goal is to improve early-career surgeon readiness for practice.

I remember the moment when I realized I was the most senior (a better way to say “oldest”) physician and had become a mentor. It was a transition that snuck up on me and a role I unassumingly stepped into. Like my mentors, I have taken this responsibility seriously and recognized the powerful impact I can have on younger physicians. Today, my advice to mentees is still rooted in some core elements that I learned when I was in their shoes.

  • Be honest about the challenges you are facing and be specific about what type of help you are seeking.
  • Know your limitations and don’t be afraid to speak up when you feel in over your head.
  • Don’t get defensive when you receive feedback that might sting your ego; good mentors enable you to see the areas where you can improve and become a better physician.
  • Come prepared for interactions with your mentor; think about the questions you want to ask and what unique insight your mentor has to offer.
  • Recognize that patients can also be great mentors with the feedback they provide.
  • Observe, listen and learn.

I also have some advice for my peers who are mentors–recognize the differences that exist between you and your mentees and be open to the perspective they bring to medicine. I recently read the 2018 Physicians Foundation’s Survey of America’s Physicians. It asked physician respondents how they would describe their professional morale and feelings about the current state of the medical profession. More than 57 percent of physicians 45 years old and under said “very/somewhat positive,” while only 39 percent of physicians 46 and older had the same outlook.

“Younger physicians have been educated and trained in the era of electronic health records and value-based payment models and may not find these and other characteristics of contemporary medical practice to be as irksome as do older physicians. Or, they simply may not have been exposed to the stresses of medical practice as long as older physicians and are not yet as affected by them,” noted the survey.

Let’s face it, as senior physicians, we sometimes fall into being pessimistic curmudgeons. But, we need to remember that part of our role as mentors is to recognize the line between preparing younger physicians for the realities they will face and diminishing their enthusiasm for a career in medicine. Their energy can be contagious and help reignite our passion for being a physician. This is one of the most gratifying aspects of being a physician mentor: to be able to prepare the next generation and have confidence in their ability to improve health care as we have done.

Categories: Communications, Colorado Medicine, COPIC Comment, Students