Being Better Mentors
Jason S. Slakter, MD
It is the time of year when many of us have begun the process of training a new group of fellows in the intricacies of our subspecialty. It is a task that can be challenging, as well as rewarding, and it carries with it a serious degree of responsibility. The fellows arrive at our office doorstep with varying levels of clinical and surgical experience but all are secure in their expectations that the next one or two years will provide them with the knowledge they need to make it in the world of retinal specialists.
Their belief in our ability to act as their mentors is based partly on the body of work we have published and presented throughout the years. These academic accomplishments demonstrate our ability to think both creatively and logically, and our efforts in this area indicate the level of acceptance and credibility we have attained within the community to which they strive to belong.
Of course we must be able to translate these achievements into lessons from which the fellows can learn. Being a successful mentor requires both time and commitment on our part. From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that it is far more difficult to explain the detailed pathogenesis and treatment of a complex retinal disease to an eager and inquisitive fellow than it is to prepare and deliver an eight-minute paper at a major meeting.
Another basis for fellows entrusting us with their education is our prior record of training others who came before them. Our reputation as knowledgeable, thoughtful, caring physicians (or, in unfortunate cases, the opposite) are frequently derived from the individuals we have trained over the years. The fellows' direct observations of our interactions with staff, patients and colleagues form a lasting impression of our true nature as both retinal specialists and as human beings.
In addition, the fellows we have trained are themselves a reflection of what they have seen and experienced in our practices. They are a part of the legacy we leave behind as physicians. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves — and to those we train — to teach by example and to demonstrate the highest ethical standards in the way we make treatment decisions and manage our patients.
Finally, one of the simplest and most common reasons for selecting a mentor is his or her age and experience. There is a familiar saying that “with age comes wisdom,” and certainly years of managing challenging cases will give us a perspective and knowledge base that is valuable for fellows.
However, we must also keep a mind open to new concepts and not be trapped in “old ways of thinking.” Without question, retina is a dynamic field, and among the many obligations we have to our fellows is to keep abreast of the latest technology and to demonstrate a willingness to make changes as the field evolves. If we fail to do so, I fear that a phrase from Thomas Wilson may be more appropriate: “Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age; sometimes age just shows up all by itself.”