What Clinician Mentorship Programs Can Learn From Online Dating

Group of surgeons in operating room

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare institutions have struggled to maintain effective faculty mentorship and sponsorship programs due to social distancing mandates and shifting roles. Individual clinicians have become siloed, making it difficult to maintain networking opportunities and connect with others.

To overcome these obstacles, Brigham and Women’s Hospital is piloting a new Faculty Mentorship and Sponsorship Network Program that relies on some of the same technology used in the world of online dating.

Anju K. Patel, MD, laryngologist and associate surgeon in the Brigham’s Division of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, spearheads the program. In addition to her clinical, faculty and research responsibilities, Dr. Patel has had a career-long interest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), using technology and digital strategies to create a safe and equitable landscape in which healthcare providers can give the best care possible.

“Personal and professional wellbeing are crucial to providing safe patient care and positive health outcomes,” Dr. Patel says. “Mentoring taps into psychosocial functions critical to that wellbeing, such as acceptance, affirmation, friendship, emotional support and reassurance.”

Women and Minority Physicians at Risk

According to a Harvard Business Review article, male professionals with sponsors are 23% more likely to be promoted, while female professionals with sponsors are 19% more likely to be promoted. Effective mentorship and sponsorship programs are particularly important for female faculty and those underrepresented in medicine, including Black, Hispanic and Native American people. These are the groups most at risk for unequitable career advancement as well as job-related burnout and mental health issues, Dr. Patel says.

“Women make up about 70% of the health care workforce, and the healthcare worker shortage has impacted their mental and physical health tremendously,” she says. “Depression and suicidal ideation, which was already around 40% among female clinicians before the pandemic, has soared to as high as 75% in some places.”

Using Digital Strategies to Create a More Equitable Space

The Faculty Mentorship and Sponsorship Network Program uses cloud-based technology integrated with communication and collaboration tools such as Microsoft Outlook and Teams as well as Zoom to create an easy and engaging experience. Similar to online dating programs, participants start by creating an online profile that includes information about their position, tenure with the Brigham and interests. An algorithm matches senior faculty with junior clinicians and researchers, bringing together individuals who may otherwise never connect.

“Interdepartmental connection is key,” Dr. Patel says. “The goal is to recognize the commonalities we have as healthcare professionals, beyond just what we see patients for.”

The program is being piloted in three Brigham departments—Surgery, Neurosurgery and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R)—with the support of Jennifer J. Shin, MD, (Surgery) and Danielle L. Sarno, MD, (Neurosurgery and PM&R). Once matched, pairs participate in one-to-one longitudinal career-mentoring programs.

Dr. Patel is digitally tracking program results through participant surveys conducted before, during and at the end of the program, allowing her to capture metrics relating to culture and personal wellbeing. She noted the program also can be integrated with the faculty annual review process and provide guided topics for discussion, resources for mentees and mentors and a tailored level of detail for participants.

“We’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, who have expressed how happy they are with their mentorship and sponsorship relationships,” Dr. Patel says. “Based on this positive response, we are hopeful that we can expand the program across all departments.”

Impact of Gender and Parental Status

Dr. Patel is also pursuing additional DEI projects. She has received the Women in Otolaryngology Endowment Grant through the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery to develop and validate a tool to measure the experiences of women and parent surgeons. The goal of the project is to comprehensively assess risk factors that ultimately culminate in surgeons leaving their position and to determine impacts on the physician workforce.

“Nearly 40% of women physicians transition to part-time status or leave medicine within six years of completing residency, primarily due to work-family conflict,” she says. “Women physicians also face gender harassment, gender bias, professional advancement challenges and discrimination related to their role as a parent.”

Current assessments and interventions addressing these issues are limited, according to Dr. Patel, who says they often focus on the end condition of burnout but do not comprehensively investigate its origins. The proposed tool would be a first step in better understanding the complexities of physician retention and burnout in women and parents so they can be addressed.

Dr. Patel brings a unique perspective to her DEI-focused work, which is informed by a shared view and lived experience as a physician, woman and mother. She praises the strong mentorship and sponsorship she has received from Dr. Shin, vice chair for faculty development in the Department of Surgery. It was Dr. Shin who encouraged Dr. Patel to extend the use of patient-reported outcome tools to the physician experience—a concept that resulted in the funded grant proposal.

“The Brigham places a high priority on creating a work environment that promotes self-care, personal and professional growth, and compassion for ourselves, our colleagues and our patients,” Dr. Patel says. “We have a wealth of amazing individuals with bright minds and a passion to share their knowledge and support others.”

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