Canadian Medical Association

Role models are relatable people we admire and want to emulate, and who have attained positions we aspire to reach. 

In medicine, role models help medical students develop their professional identities, instilling in them professional values as well as healthy attitudes and wellness behaviours. 

According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, the learning that matters most in medical education occurs in the context of relationships. It has also been said that a physician’s professional identity is shaped as much by those relationships — including mentoring, role modelling and the hidden curriculum — as by formal teaching experiences, if not more. 

Whether physicians are aware of what they communicate or not, the AMA Journal of Ethics points out that they must be compassionate and mindful of their influence to ensure students and residents feel comfortable asking questions. 

Qualities of a good role model

Role models’ most valued qualities are a positive attitude toward junior colleagues, compassion for patients and integrity. Other important qualities include clinical competence, enthusiasm and teaching ability. 

When asked to describe the top characteristics looked for in a role model, students in an article in the British Medical Journal * said the following:

  • As physicians, role models should have enthusiasm for their specialty, clinical reasoning skills, strong doctor-patient relationships and the ability to view the whole patient.
  • As teachers, role models need to show enthusiasm for teaching, involve students and communicate effectively with students.
  • As people, role models must be enthusiastic, compassionate and competent.

Yet some researchers have noted a disconnect between what medical students say they seek in role models and the traits they actually emulate (such as the ability to hold power, responsibility and status). 

This indicates those in leadership roles may not always impart professional values, attitudes and behaviours — leading some to believe that professional behaviour and ethics should be taught through peer groups, trained mentors and input from outside the medical community.

*Note: This article must be purchased or rented.

How to be a wellness role model: Professional behaviour

You can promote wellness in the context of medical education by always:

  • Practising the four domains of self-care: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health
  • Speaking often and openly about health and wellness, and continue wellness training throughout your career
  • Reducing stigma by normalizing help-seeking and prioritizing self-care

An article in the AMA Journal of Ethics stresses the importance of: 

  • Demonstrating that anxiety and vulnerability are normal and expected in difficult situations 
  • Admitting when you don’t know something, and that uncertainty and complexity are natural in medicine 
  • Empathizing with students to teach them to empathize with patients

And an article in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology recommends building a psychologically safe learning culture by:

  • Encouraging students to express their thoughts, questions and concerns, and to feel comfortable admitting mistakes without fear of embarrassment and retribution
  • Inviting participation from learners and respond supportively
  • Talking openly about errors and help students learn from them
  • Practising proactive inquiry (by asking “Can you help because I may have missed something?” or “What did you see?” or “You were here overnight, what did you notice?” rather than simple yes/no questions)
  • Thanking students and giving credit to those who ask questions and share ideas
  • Debriefing the group by analyzing what went well and what could have gone better
  • Instilling a compassionate and empathetic approach to foster quality, patient-centered care

How to be a wellness role model: Mental health 

It’s equally important for educators to pay attention to their students’ mental health. Dr. Martha Peaslee Levine outlines the ways in which physicians can shape the development of medical students:

  • Being mindful of your influence in teaching and your hidden curriculum (the tone and culture you demonstrate)
  • Ensuring students are comfortable asking questions and requesting clarification when necessary.

Your institution should also invest in the ideas below from the winners of the AMA Medical Education Innovation Challenge:

  • Promote cognitive behavioural therapy to build coping and self-care skills. 
  • Redesign medical school buildings — for example, by placing the library next to a gym, or by providing stationary bikes, treadmill desks and meditation zones to make wellness easier to access. 
  • Develop a curriculum that preserves idealism and humanism, and makes time for gratitude, mindfulness and reflection to prevent student burnout. 
  • Encourage contemplation sessions that allow medical students to process chaos and trauma privately. 
  • Teach students to understand the business side of medicine and to be prepared for the modern challenges of running a health care practice. 

To create good student-teacher relationships, you should never:

  • Demonstrate negative feelings of anger and anxiety, poor attitudes or unethical behaviour, as these can interfere with learning and cause confusion, distress and anger in students
  • Model that it is acceptable to be rude just because you are doing something important
  • Convey that inferiors must never question their superiors
  • Publicly shame students (even if you have survived this, don’t perpetuate it)
  • Ignore students’ distress

How mentorship differs from role modelling

“Mentorship” is defined as actively engaging in a relationship of mutual trust with a trainee that evolves over time and can be terminated by either person. 

A good medical mentor is one who coaches, asks questions more than giving answers, and plays an active role in guiding medical students as they develop their own unique identity. This kind of healthy mentoring can provide the mental and moral guidance essential to medical education, while promoting self-care and self-improvement practices that can maximize student health and performance. 

Encourage trainees with leadership potential to become ambassadors

Help strengthen the next generation of medical leaders by encouraging learners to champion wellness through the CMA Ambassador Program. This program introduces medical students, residents and physicians in their first five years of practice to health policy and advocacy work, and engages them in discussions about emerging health issues, medical technologies and service models.


Establishing a wellness mindset Relationships

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