A Call for More Coaches in Medicine

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We are all familiar with mentors.

They are individuals who support, guide, and shape one’s personal or career growth. The word ‘mentor’ derives from the name of the figure in Homer’s Odyssey who cared for Odysseus’ son in his absence, now meaning an experienced and trusted advisor. A mentor serves as a role model, listening and providing advice to a usually younger and less experienced mentee. The mentor-mentee relationship dynamic is long-standing and evolves over time. In the early stages of an academic career, a mentor may help a mentee with development of a professional identity, whereas in later stages of the relationship, the focus may shift to career advancement. One systematic review outlined the influence of mentoring in academic medicine; mentorship was reported to be important for personal development, career choice, career guidance, as well as productivity, including success with publication and grant procurement. Mentorship also results in higher faculty retention rates. As a result, formal mentorship programs are increasingly being implemented in medical schools, residency and fellowship programs, as well as for junior faculty. Mentorship, it seems, is well entrenched in medicine.


Coaches are different than mentors.

The goal of a coach is to improve and refine performance or to impart a specific skill. This is often achieved through observing behavior and providing feedback. Coaching is both task-oriented and performance-driven, aiming for direct and measurable improvement. Coaching does not require the longer-term commitment of a mentoring relationship given the focus on a specific task or behavior, rather than on career development. So what is the value of having a coach if one already has a mentor? Eric Ericsson, a psychologist who studies the development of expertise, notes that practice alone is not sufficient to become an expert. True improvement requires deliberate practice, a conscious, goal-directed approach to improvement that incorporates immediate feedback. Coaching, by providing that feedback, is a fundamental component of deliberate practice and thereby the development of expertise.


Coaches are everywhere.

Coaches are utilized to develop excellence in nearly every profession. We are most familiar with coaches in the context of music and sports, especially for early learners, but even renowned musicians and elite athletes rely on coaches for continued growth. Coaches have been embedded in K-12 classrooms for years to observe teachers and help them improve their skills. They are increasingly being used in higher education, where new college faculty members are observed by more experienced faculty and given formative feedback. In the business world, executive coaching is used to improve leadership skills and to support organizational performance. Outside of the workforce, life coaches are available for those who want help in reaching a goal or making a change.


We need more coaches in medicine.

Surgeon and author Atul Gawande described his experience of turning to a coach in his quest to becoming a better surgeon in the New Yorker and again in a TED talk. Coaches have been used to identify blind spots in Internal Medicine residents’ self-assessment in the ambulatory setting, and were also found to provide higher-quality feedback than untrained faculty to pediatric residents in one program. It turns out that coaches are helpful for medical educators as well. Peer coaching on teaching has been shown to increase comfort in giving and receiving feedback and improve subsequent teaching scores. When medical educators shadowed teaching teams on rounds and provided written feedback, teaching skills improved over time. These observations and others support the incorporation of coaching into all educational activities, though opportunities for coaching exist at all levels of medicine. Whether for trainees or faculty, coaches can be used to provide feedback about communication, leadership, or teaching skills. In the end, we all want to perform our best and to have our blind spots brought into view. Deliberate and task-oriented improvement through coaching will undoubtedly prove beneficial and provide a complement to mentorship efforts.


Başak Çoruh, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, and an Associate Program Director for the University of Washington Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine fellowship program. Her academic interests are in medical education, primarily curriculum development and coaching.