What is the Role of a Mentor?

Guest post by Karmen S. Williams, DrPH, MBA, Assistant Professor at City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy, and Meera G. Subash, MD, Assistant Professor and Division Quality Officer for the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, McGovern Medical School.

“Everyone, at every point in their career, has the potential to be a mentor as well as [to] seek a mentor. It is the combination of being and doing in mentorship that makes it such a rewarding and important part of a professional career.”

Medical informatics pioneer and NLM Director Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, recently spoke these words when she joined us for a special podcast hosted by the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA)—a crossover episode between For Your Informatics, led by the Women in AMIA Initiative, and ACIF Go-Live, directed by the AMIA Clinical Informatics Fellows.

Bryan McConomy, MD, began our inaugural episode with an introduction to medical informatics, highlighting the early work of Dr. G. Octo Barnett and his team’s development of the MUMPS integrated programming language at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1960s. Being a relatively young field, we can look to the trailblazers who first used computers to augment clinical decision-making and improve health care discovery and delivery. We pay homage to the rich tapestry of innovative leaders and educators, such as Homer Warner, MD, PhD; Reed Gardner, PhD; Clement McDonald, MD; Margo Cook, RN; Lawrence Weed, MD; and Edward Shortliffe, MD, PhD, to name a few.

We started the History of Medical Informatics joint podcast series with those two AMIA podcasts with the understanding that we need to connect our past with the present. This ongoing series catalogs this history through the eyes of pioneers in the field of health informatics. By highlighting how historical events merge with contemporary topics of interest in health informatics, we intend to strengthen the bridge for new and upcoming professionals both in and outside of informatics.

In our episode titled “History of Medical Informatics – Mentorship” with Dr. Brennan, we focus on how mentorship was established in a field that, until recently, was virtually nonexistent. Dr. Brennan was not only our first guest on the joint series, but she was also featured in a March 2020 episode of For Your Informatics titled “Training the Next Generation of Informaticians,” which also offers valuable information on mentorship. She has been a full-circle guest by highlighting the past, present, and future of mentorship in health informatics.

Dr. Brennan will also be our keynote speaker at this week’s 2022 AMIA Clinical Informatics Conference, which will give us an opportunity to reflect on the real meaning of mentorship. What is mentorship? How did health informatics pioneers build mentorship in a new and novel field? What is the role of a mentor?

Dr. Brennan recalls some of the best parts of her mentorship experience, including having the freedom to explore, engage with like-minded individuals, establish trust, push boundaries beyond your starting point, and open new doors. Mentors are there for your failures in life, for the deeply embarrassing moments, and to help pick you up when you hit a bump in your career.

However, not all mentorships are created equal. There are some that are lifelong, while some are short term. Some aren’t always mutually beneficial, while others are mutually uplifting. Some mentors come from other fields, while others may be in the same field. The commitment to mentorship may be formalized or just a passing activity.

The style of mentorship can also vary. Some may bring a mentee into a research group to work side by side with them while some may only have periodic conversations. Either way, the mentor must be ready and willing to go through the process.

We’d like to share some wisdom we’ve received over the years: seek out people for a cup of coffee and find someone with whom you can share your successes and challenges. This is important because not all skills are learned in the classroom. For example, academicians need to know how to interpret faculty governance, engage with management, and position research and teaching. Dr. Brennan points out that “these things are difficult to learn on your own, and that’s where mentors can come in.”

The point is that mentorship must be purposeful and built on the trust needed to guide the direction of mentees’ careers and important life choices. It is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Mentorship in any arena is pertinent to career development, but it is especially valuable in groundbreaking fields like health informatics.

What is the best advice you’ve received from a mentor?

Headshot of Dr. Karmen S. Williams.

Dr. Williams completed a post-doctorate fellowship in public and population health informatics at Indiana University and Regenstrief Institute, where she focused on systemic informatics integration. Dr. Williams serves as the director of AMIA’s For Your Informatics podcast, which features individuals at all career stages to reveal the diverse world of biomedical and health informatics professions. She is a member of the AMIA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee; Women in AMIA Pathways Subcommittee; and AMIA Dental Informatics Working Group.

Headshot of Dr. Meera G. Subash.

Dr. Subash received her undergraduate degree from Stanford University and her medical degree from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine. She continued to University of California San Francisco to complete both her Rheumatology and Clinical Informatics Fellowships. She is Epic Physician Builder certified, and her interest area is implementing and evaluating health IT and electronic health record tools to improve patient care in rheumatology and ambulatory care.

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