The Keys to Successful Medical Mentoring

Jun 24, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Lynne Holden, MD, is president and chief executive officer of Mentoring in Medicine, Inc and a 2009 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader. Based in the Bronx, N.Y., she has established an all-volunteer organization that encourages and nurtures disadvantaged students to enter the health professions. Mentoring in Medicine introduces students as young as first grade to a wide range of health professions and provides mentoring, academic enrichment, and leadership development to set them on the path toward health careers. In addition to personal contact with health professionals, students have opportunities to deliver health education in their communities. The movement Holden created motivates and supports nearly 6,000 students and engages nearly 500 health care professional volunteers.


As an Emergency Department physician, I owe all of my success to a number of mentors who were there to encourage, challenge, and remind me of what’s possible with a high degree of dedication and sacrifice.

Oddly, my first mentor was a television character: Marcus Welby, MD. I would rush home from school to see what types of patients Dr. Welby had to deal during the latest TV episode. I wanted to be just like him—smart, caring, and helpful.

Constant discussions about becoming a doctor led my father to give me a copy of “Gray's Anatomy”—a standard medical school textbook on human anatomy—for Christmas when I was 10.  Constant talk at family gatherings led my aunt, who was a nurse, to allow me to meet a black female physician for the very first time. I met Dr. Muriel Petioni at the age of 12 and that began a lifelong mentoring relationship until her death in 2012 at the age of 96.

My mentors did not just appear magically. I started the process by visualizing my end result and sharing my goals. As the founder of a national mentoring organization called Mentoring in Medicine, I’ve had the privilege to work with nearly 1,000 health professionals as we touched more than 15,000 students across the country.

Here are a few suggestions you may want to follow as a mentor:

1. Work from your availability. Be careful of trying to save everyone and lose yourself in the process. It's important to create safe boundaries that allow you to achieve a greater level of work/life balance.

2. Tell the truth. Students and younger professionals don’t want to hear how great you are. They need someone who can connect to their struggles and offer them a proven plan of action. Your personal setbacks will help someone realize that they are not alone.

3. Know your industry. Give advice as if your life depended on it. Be careful about speaking out of turn on topics that you have not mastered.  Be willing to refer your mentee to a reliable source of information if available.

If you are looking for a mentor, then here a few things you may want to consider:

1. Do your homework. Research your possible mentor and speak to a few of his or her colleagues. Compatibility is important to have a solid and long-term mentoring relationship. Make sure that you both have similar interests and temperament. You will be surprised at who may be willing to serve as your mentor.

2. Help your mentor. Listen to your mentor and follow through with advice and recommendations. Move from what you can take to what you can give. Understand your mentor’s areas of improvement and offer to help-out at no charge. You’ll learn a great deal by hanging out with a mentor.

3. Celebrate your mentor. Keep your mentor abreast of your activities. Acknowledge them at any chance you get for their involvement in your career. As you succeed in your career the tables may turn and the one who mentored you is now coming to you for advice. One day you will play the role of inspiring hundreds of other students to press on despite the odds.

Read more about Holden’s work.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.