I REFLECT upon my own mentors from early childhood days into adulthood and recognise the influence they had in shaping my confidence, passion, growth, and inner strengths.

My earliest experience of mentorship was in high school Year 8 [then Form 2] about 46 years ago, when I passionately wrote an essay on the harms of dams on rivers to the local ecosystems. My English was exceptionally poor, averaging a D [E was a failure] for most assignments. My migrant parents barely spoke English and I did not start reading properly till high school.

Fortunately, my science teacher was able to see beyond my multiple grammar errors and appreciate the content of my inner passion and thoughts. He returned my essay on dams back to me with corrections of red marks all over it; but somehow, I managed to score an A-. He smiled at me and said, “great work, just watch your grammar”. This was my first score ever of an A for an assignment. Literally overnight, I developed a love for science — my science teacher became my first mentor — and subsequently my journey into medicine.

Many doctors have shared similar inspirational stories of mentorship. Each doctor’s story varies considerably, from their personal experience of mentorship to who, when, why and how. Mentors can have a significant influence on our career choices and personal development.

There is so much value in listening and learning from the experiences of others, and storytelling is a big part of that.

The Australian Federation of Medical Women have initiated an e-book on their website to include stories of pioneering female medical practitioners about their own personal journey of mentorship, titled Herstory: mentors that change our lives. Professor Leanne Rowe and Professor Michael Kidd’s textbook Every doctor: healthier doctors = healthier patients discusses the important role of mentors and their influence on doctors’ wellbeing. A new edition of this informative book is soon on its way.

Tertiary institutions such as Monash University and Melbourne University, the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland have set up suitable peer mentoring programs, even for medical students, fully aware of the enormous benefits mentoring has for students. It is now the norm for nearly all Australian universities to provide the opportunity to pair students with suitable peers.

These opportunities were not provided for doctors belonging to my era. Having come from a working-class background and knowing only one older student at Monash University who was not studying medicine, a mentoring program would have allowed me to feel more connected, less isolated, and less marginalised. The academic institutions should be congratulated for developing structured mentorship programs and have come a long way since those early days in medicine.

However, it should not stop there.

Our medical graduates require ongoing mentoring throughout their training and beyond, including hospitals where stress, bullying and harassment are ripe, as highlighted in a number of InSight+ articles (here and here). A recent Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) medical training survey of over half of 21 000 Australian medical trainees has confirmed trainees are still experiencing significant workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination, especially among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainees.

While major cultural workplace changes are required to deal with these issues, an effective mentor can help a young trainee by providing guidance, advice, the opportunity to vent their emotions, seek help, and feel valued, comforted and supported. Active listening and a few kind comforting words can go a long way.

Mentorships may not be based on just educational and coaching roles, but also for friendship, some developing into lifelong friendship, and guidance. Many mentorship relationships develop spontaneously and naturally, and are not necessarily structured. It is well recognised (here, here, here, here and here) that mentorship enhances collegial relationships and friendships, improves work performance, expands professional networks, improves engagement and productivity, and promotes learning opportunities, knowledge and collaboration not only for career and work benefits and satisfaction but also for life benefits. The benefits are bidirectional; that is, the process is satisfying for both the mentors and the mentee.

The research also backs the important role of mentorship within health care training. A review of the literature exploring mentorship specifically for health professionals identified the enormous challenges on the medical and training students, ranging from life at universities, hospital work, various training organisations and relationships with the various regulatory bodies. The reviewers recognised the benefit in how mentors help foster “… an understanding of the enduring elements of practice within these organisations”.

As we continue to work, learn, grow and evolve as health professionals, new and old mentors may continue to influence our path and play an important role in our life journey. Mentors may come and go in our lives, but the memory of the positive experiences created by our mentors may never leave.

We choose our mentors when they inspire us, believe in us, and teach us well to cope and adapt. When we trust our mentors, we may model their behaviour or take their advice to adapt to the work in which we are involved.

Characteristics of successful mentorship may include (here, here and here):

  1. mentors being sincere and generous with their time for the mentee;
  2. mentors being available for the mentee when needed, even just to actively listen;
  3. being kind and empathic to each other;
  4. help the mentee feel relaxed to speak their mind or ask questions with their mentor – not feel stressed;
  5. mutually respectful;
  6. have a personal connection and shared values;
  7. willing to learn and to share knowledge and skills;
  8. display enthusiasm for teaching and learning;
  9. recognise each other’s strengths, goodness and good intentions;
  10. clear focus and communication;
  11. conveying a sense of importance and trust in each other;
  12. guidance of mentees for healthy personal and career choices; and
  13. providing opportunities for change and further growth.

Mentorship can also influence the “‘hidden curriculum’ of professionalism, ethics, values, and the art of medicine” that cannot be learnt from textbooks. In many cases, mentors influence our subconscious thinking, may influence our behaviour through modelling (eg, how we speak and relate to patients), and also provide comfort, reassurance, emotional support, and encouragement. It is not always easy to find the best mentor and develop optimal mentoring relationships.

Problems with mentorship do occur with mentors and mentees who may be forced into a relationship that did not develop naturally. There may be gender and cultural issues, conflicts of interest, clashes in personal values, power imbalances, or unrealistic expectations for the mentee and mentor. Research suggests failed mentoring relationships may be characterised by poor communication, lack of commitment, personality differences, perceived (or real) competition, and the mentor’s lack of experience.

Personally, I am forever grateful to my mentors. I continue to hold them in the utmost respect. My mentors helped shape me to be the best doctor and person I can possibly be. They taught me survival skills, coping strategies, knowledge, and to live and work with gratefulness, respect, kindness and compassion – these are my mottos in everyday life.

Do you have a story to share?

Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM is a GP with over 35 years of clinical experience.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

2 thoughts on “Mentorship: shaping young doctors to be their best

  1. Magdalena Simonis says:

    Thank you A/Prof Vicki Kotsirilos for highlighting the AFMW Herstory project in MJA Insight. It’s a mission of mine that our mentoring compilation be about giving and sharing to support others whilst also building an historically significant chapter told through lived experience of medical women. Sharing our ‘pearls of wisdom’ learned through our own experiences but also remembering those who made some life changing statements, that resonate and help us move forward. Thank you for being our inaugural contributor! More contributions from our medical women members are welcome so that this chapter grows and builds our Australian Federation of Medical Women story and legacy!

  2. Leanne Rowe says:

    Thankyou Professor Vicki Kotsirilos for reminding us about mentoring as we are emerging from the 2 year pandemic – more important than ever that we support all our junior doctors.

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