The changing faces of mentoring

Radiology is always looking for a few good role models—and the demand is especially high for women.

Radiology practices and departments that neglect to develop the talent of their younger physicians today shouldn’t be surprised if, over the coming years, they experience a marked dropoff in work quality across all spheres of professional activity. That includes professional leadership itself. 

Preferences around methodology vary widely, but radiology leaders who’ve invested substantial time and thought in intentional mentoring programs broadly agree that, if you aren’t enhancing someone’s raw talent right now, you’re hurting your practice’s long-term prospects for continuously improving productivity, boosting morale and maximizing retention—not to mention elevating resilience teamwide. 

Where to start if you haven’t already? First, consider the concept. 

Mentoring probably ranks high among top-down management measures that seem self-explanatory but, in fact, require defining prior to launching. To begin with, the traditional mentor/mentee relationship is decidedly hierarchical: An older, experienced man or woman builds something of a master/apprentice relationship with a younger, less experienced colleague in order to support his or her professional growth and development. 

That model is unlikely to ever fade to complete irrelevance, but it’s only one model. There’s plenty of contemporary, innovative mentoring going on within radiology today—and thus many alternative mentoring approaches to emulate, replicate or otherwise imitate.

Some in the field are beefing up efforts to mentor young women, including those still in medical school, as a way to increase the female-radiologist headcount along with the state of radiology as a whole. More on that later. First, consider the need for more and better radiological mentoring across the board.  

Changing Needs 

Particularly in academic radiology, the hierarchical model has historically aimed at guiding the mentee in such activities as conducting research or writing research grants. But, according to Vijay Rao, MD, chair of radiology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and president of RSNA, “the paradigm has shifted from that very narrow definition of mentoring.”

Specifically, she says, new forces are reshaping the mentoring landscape within radiology. These include the expanding cultural diversity of the up-and-coming workforce, the widening of physicians’ ongoing educational interests beyond medicine and the increasing commonness of multigenerational collaboration in clinical as well as academic settings. 

Add in technological change, economic pressures and the neverending disputes over healthcare policy, and the stage is set for rethinking mentoring—including from the young doctor’s point of view. 

“The needs of the mentee have changed tremendously,” Rao tells RBJ. “In addition to guidance on research and publishing, young radiologists may need mentoring on issues like time management, work-life balance and how to pursue career opportunities.”  

And while mentors have traditionally looked to advise mentees “who are like themselves,” Rao points out, in a more diverse environment, “mentors have to be aware of all of these other influences and try to understand a mentee’s needs so mentoring can be more effective.”

An effective mentoring relationship should continue to focus on building specialty-specific skills and imparting knowledge, as always, but now it should also provide the mentee with emotional and psychological support, assistance with career development, and role modeling of sound management and visionary leadership. 

To this Rao adds: “It should also be mutually beneficial” to both parties.  

Women on the Way Up 

A systematic review of mentoring in academic medicine by Sambunjak et al. published in 2006 showed that less than 50 percent of medical students and physicians—and in some fields less than 20 percent of faculty members—had a mentor. More than a decade later, the survey is surely due for an update. In any case, more than a few observers believe the numbers are likely even more concerning for women in medicine. 

“Everybody acknowledges that having mentors is important for career development, especially in academics,” says Meridith Englander, MD, an interventional radiologist in Upstate New York. “It’s important to have someone who will go out on a limb for you and volunteer your name. That’s critical for career development, and it’s something women seem to have a harder time with.”

“Junior women clinicians really do not get enough mentoring, and they really need it,” adds Rao. “We [women] face more challenges obtaining career advice and are at greater risk for burnout.”

One explanation might be the shortfall of women in the radiology workforce. The ACR’s 2017 workforce survey showed that only 21.5 percent of radiologists are female. Perhaps more discouraging still, a separate ACR study on women in radiology found just 9.6 percent of academic radiology departments chaired by women in 2014. 

“While you really don’t need a woman as a mentor, sometimes it’s hard to form those relationships with men,” says Englander, who serves as head of the Society of Interventional Radiology’s (SIR) Women in Interventional Radiology section. “It’s human nature to look for people in whom you see a little bit of yourself.”

“We need to give a female face to radiology,” says Kentucky radiologist Margaret Szabunio, MD, president of the American Association for Women Radiologists. “There are successful women in radiology, and that is something female medical students should be aware of.”

Early and Often  

Some believe mentoring may be useful for getting female medical students interested in radiology before they’ve even seriously considered the specialty. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School looked into the effectiveness of such early intervention in a study published last September in Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology.

Study co-author Carolynn DeBenedictis, MD, director of the school’s radiology residency program, says the impetus for the study came from a discussion she had with a medical student. The young woman had been leaning toward radiology but was now entertaining second thoughts. 

“She said she’d been told that she should relate to people in her specialty, but she felt there was no one like her in radiology,” DeBenedictis recalls. “She had no positive female mentors and no positive examples of female radiologists.”

DeBenedictis suggested the student shadow her for a week before making a final decision. And that was all it took: The student decided radiology was exactly the field she wanted to go into. 

Based on that experience, DeBenedictis and her UMass Medical School colleagues introduced a number of changes. The most successful of these has come in the form of stepped-up efforts to make female radiologists more visible throughout the institution. A panel discussion of women in radiology, for example, led to numerous student attendees reporting a dramatically higher opinion of radiology as a field for women. Another effort, a “dinner with doctors” hosted through the local chapter of the American Medical Women’s Association, led to female radiologists inviting medical students to one-on-one conversations about life and work as a woman radiologist. 

“We really tried to be much more involved in the medical school so that we had a more positive female presence,” DeBenedictis says. The results testify to the methodology: Of nine UMass medical students choosing radiology in 2017, six were women.

‘Delicate Balance’ 

Female or male, med student or resident, fellow or newly named practice partner, individuals coming up through the radiology ranks—tomorrow’s radiology leaders—need today’s experienced pros to step up and demonstrate how things are done. On this the experts agree. For it’s true that people can forget what they’re told and may grow fuzzy on what they’re formally taught. But make an impression on a younger person by getting him or her involved, and chances are the mastery will last a lifetime. 

As for mentoring methodology, there’s no one right way. What works for one might not work for another. All that matters are the results. Steven Spielberg may have put it best: “The delicate balance of mentoring someone,” he once said, “is not creating them in your own image. It’s giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”