Do millennial doctors need a new style of mentoring?

By Michael Woodhead

11 Sep 2018

Claims that ‘millennial’ doctors need a different style of mentoring to reflect their generation’s unique communication & working habits have been dismissed as stereotyping and unnecessary.

Writing in JAMA, US surgeon Dr Jennifer Waljee says generational conflicts are now occurring regularly between senior staff mentors and junior doctors who have grown up in an age of instant communication via social media with ‘flat’ hierarchical systems.

She cites examples of mentors who become angry and frustrated at junior doctor mentees who appear impatient, entitled and distracted by their smartphones.

But in many cases these are typical examples of millennials adept at multitasking using technology and social media to rapidly acquire and share information and skills about medicine, according to Dr Waljee who practices at the Michigan Medicine clinic.

Millennials, she says, are accustomed to frequent and rapid interactions from a global network of connections, and are surprised when their mentor does not reply immediately to their email or a senior member of staff shows annoyance at being contacted directly by a junior.

Millennials also baulk at the traditional and slow apprenticeship and peer review system. She cites another example of a millennial doctor wanting to immediately implement and share knowledge of an innovative intervention to improve patient care rather than take the advice of a mentor to wait and develop a clinical trial to generate a high-impact scientific paper.

“A keen awareness of generational mindsets and motivations can allow for more productive and rewarding mentoring relationships, and several strategies can improve intergenerational working relations,” Dr Waljee says.

She suggests solutions such as ‘micromentoring’ with frequent, brief meetings that provide quick yes or no answers on narrow topics. Mentors could also break down the hierarchical communication structures by accepting ‘reverse mentoring’ and using social media platforms such as Twitter to connect with faculty  and disseminate research findings.

“Given the value of a vibrant and diverse faculty, it is essential to understand the factors that motivate or deter the next generation.”

“Keeping an open mind on the use of smartphones at the scrub sink may be but one example of this approach,” she concludes.

However the responses to the proposals in JAMA assert that her observations and recommendations are based on false stereotypes about young people.

“Like previous generations, millennials value meaningful face-to-face interaction as an essential component of professional relationships,” write Drs David and Mary Rogowski, who are pathologists at Michigan Medicine

“Micromentoring” cannot replace longer, thought-provoking dialogues between mentor and mentee, and traditional scheduling methods are still essential to ensure that these sorts of meetings happen,” they say.

And Dr Haider Warraich of Duke University goes further, saying that the label millennial is meaningless and should not be used in medicine.

“Systematic reviews of studies assessing generational differences have failed to show any meaningful differences,” he writes.

“Using terms such as millennials goes against the very essence of high-quality mentorship, which focuses on the uniqueness of individuals, all of whom have individual needs,” says Dr Warraich.

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