As millennials continue to constitute the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, they need seasoned physician leaders to help them excel.
In a rural town of 4,000 people, John Cullen, MD, FAAFP, relishes imparting his wisdom to the physician residents and medical students training in his family medicine practice in Valdez, Alaska, about 300 miles east of Anchorage.
“This is an extremely adventuresome career,” says Cullen, who is also president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians (his term begins in October 2018) and enjoys mentoring the next generation of clinicians.
In family medicine, “we deliver babies; we watch them grow up; we take care of them; we take care of their families; and we see them in the emergency room,” he says. “We admit them into the hospital, and we take care of the elders when they’re end-of-life. It is the entire breadth and length of human existence.”
As millennials continue to constitute the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, they need seasoned physician leaders to help them excel. Mentoring becomes part and parcel of grooming the next generation to embrace challenges in an ever-changing health care landscape.
Cullen, who shares an office with three other family physicians, welcomes the mentees to stay in his large house outfitted with a hot tub on the back deck overlooking the northern lights. It’s where he and his wife, Michelle, who teaches astronomy online, raised three children.
“Our expectation is that medical students and residents will make themselves at home,” he says. “Practicing medicine is inherently stressful and is more so with the administrative burdens and dysfunctional EHRs that we currently are forced to deal with. My wife and I try to model successful ways of sustaining a fulfilling career and life in medicine.”
Shadowing him in the clinic and beyond teaches mentees about work-life balance—eating well, carving out time for exercise and adequate sleep, and reaping fulfillment both on and off the job, Cullen says. The area is also “a microcosm of a larger community.”
Most of Cullen’s mentees come from out of state to experience Alaska while feeding their interest in rural family medicine.
Emily Dollar, a third-year student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, observed “a lot of really moving encounters with patients” during her five-week rotation in Cullen’s clinic. She soaked in as much as she could while Cullen did everything from removing moles to suturing wounds to performing colonoscopies.
Amid a backdrop of majestic mountains, the training was transformational. It heightened her interest in pursuing family medicine as a career. Temperatures descending into the teens didn’t faze the native of upstate New York. “I loved it,” Dollar, 25, says of her first Alaskan odyssey. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”
Scenic vistas aside, she recalls being “impressed by the relationships that providers had with their patients, how well they knew them, how well they really understood the community and the family dynamics of the people they were treating.” She welcomed feedback from Cullen as they discussed the intricacies of decision-making and treatment plans.
In a mentoring role, a physician should be able to delegate and feel a sense of selflessness. Only then can the physician feel comfortable relinquishing credit for a mentee’s accomplishments, says Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, immediate past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a professor and clinical director of the breast oncology program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor.
“Mentoring is important for everybody and every field unless you live in a cave somewhere,” Hayes says, adding, “In our field, especially in academic medicine, we continue to be a master-craftsman-apprenticeship type of situation.”
And if the apprentice has embarked on the wrong career pathway, the craftsman can help guide the mentee in shifting gears.
“Mentoring is very important to me, both as a receiver and a giver, and to ASCO, which is putting a lot of resources into mentoring opportunities,” he says.
Hayes’ mentor told him the achievement he’s most proud of is the caliber of fellowship trainees he has inspired to greater heights. “Our success is his success,” Hayes says. And that, he points out, is “a sign of a good mentor.”
Mentoring relationships can be formal (medical school programs, networking) or informal (leadership opportunities), according to the academy. Mentors are particularly important for minorities, women or students in medical schools that do not have a department of family medicine.
Paige Tomcho, DO, a family medicine physician at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, North Carolina, says “the mentor learns as much as the mentee from the interaction. Oftentimes, you stay friends with the person for years.”
At the health system spanning North and South Carolina, Tomcho serves as chair of the Physician and ACP (advanced clinical practitioner) Engagement & Wellness Committee. And she’s involved in its Center for Physician Leadership and Development, which offers a formal one-on-one mentoring program. Tomcho encourages mentees to explore passions and envision where they would like to be five years from now, while connecting them with various people and departments. And she conveys the health system’s strategic priorities centered around growth, affordability and value.
“Every mentee is a little different as far as what you would discuss,” Tomcho says. “It depends on where they are along in their journey.”
Susan Kreimer is a freelance health care journalist based in New York.