Mentoring Programs Teach Medical Students Medicine, Empathy

December 21, 2011

Sometimes a simple conversation can provide lessons just as valuable as the ones learned in a classroom or gleaned from a book.

Sometimes a simple conversation can provide lessons just as valuable as the ones learned in a classroom or gleaned from a book.

That’s the premise behind programs offered at several medical schools throughout the country which encourage students to learn more about treating and relating to patients of different ages by participating in mentorships.

At some schools, like the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, student mentoring programs pair students with elderly individuals. Participants in the UNM program meet with their mentors to discuss their mentors’ current healthcare experiences and what they want and need from their healthcare providers.

The hope is to better acquaint up-and-coming physicians with the needs of elderly patients, Lloryn Swan, UNM senior mentor program coordinator, told Physicians Practice via e-mail.

Kristen M. Gonzales, a third year UNM medical school student and a participant in the program, says her relationship with her mentor has improved her patient relations skills.
“I have found that I am now able to more thoroughly understand and empathize with my patients on a variety of social, ethical, and medical issues,” she said via e-mail.

Such programs may also play a role in combating the physician shortage in certain specialties. In geriatrics for instance, there is currently only one geriatrician for every 2,620 Americans aged 75 or older, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

“[Mentorship programs] expose individuals early on in their careers to fields that they may not otherwise consider throughout their training,” Gonzales said, noting that through her participation in the UNM program she realized geriatrics was the population she was “passionate about serving.”

Geriatrician Carla Herman, division chief for geriatrics at UNM, said her hope for the program is not so much to expand the amount of geriatricians, but to better equip more physicians with the knowledge required to treat the elderly.

“Rather than plan to train an increasing number of geriatricians, our role is to train all medical students and health professionals to be comfortable caring for older patients and to have the key concepts and approaches to care for geriatric patients,” she said via e-mail.

For many of you already-established physicians, mentorship programs were not offered when you attended medical school. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t accessible to you now - in a different way.

As the holidays approach, it’s likely you will encounter family members and friends of different ages. Sit down and talk to them for a few minutes - and really listen to them.

What do they enjoy speaking about? How do they like to be approached? What do they worry about? A simple conversation might reveal something new that can help you better relate to and treat your own patients.