Mentoring in Primary Care

In recent years, the number of medical students choosing internal medicine or family practice has risen. Nonetheless, the Association of American Medical Colleges and other organizations continue to predict shortages of primary care doctors.

Mutual Benefits
Community-based physicians interested in serving as mentors to medical students can help fill the primary care gap, says Philip A. Masters, MD, vice president of membership and international programs at the American College of Physicians. A primary care physician for 25 years, Masters also served as clerkship director for internal medicine and primary care at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. “The most powerful influence on medical students is when they identify with a physician in practice,” he says. When students work with a mentor, “they see the joys and challenges of primary care and realize the meaning and importance of this work.”

Mentoring takes time and emotional effort, but that effort pays off for physicians and students alike. “There’s nothing more stimulating than being around a young person eager to learn from you,” says Masters. Additionally, a clinical pearl that you pass on to them can become part of how they practice. Medical students also bring questions and share their knowledge of new research and technology, encouraging practicing physicians to think about patient care and practice management in novel ways.

Getting Involved
Physicians can get involved in several ways, with commitments ranging from a few hours a month or semester (especially during classes on clinical diagnosis or medical decision making) to as much as a week with a student shadowing you as you see patients. Primary care practices also make excellent sites for student-led research projects on topics such as health screening effectiveness.

Physicians interested in mentoring students can start by contacting a local medical school or residency program. The American College of Physicians, American Academy of Family Physicians, and state medical societies have programs that can link a practicing physician with a medical student or resident. Early-career physicians may also need mentoring, which can play an important role in solidifying a doctor’s decision to focus on primary care.

In medicine—as in life—we learn from the generation who went before us, Masters points out. “It’s the core way in which we help the next generation of physicians.”