Mentorship plays a key role in advancing careers for physicians underrepresented in medicine: report

When Andrew Gonzalez, M.D., who identifies as African-American, was completing his medical training he recalled that there was only one other Black surgical trainee in a program of nearly 50 residents.

Across the five clinical sites and among several dozen faculty members, there was only one Black attending physician. When Gonzalez completed his fellowship in vascular surgery in 2019, he said he became the first Black person to do so in that program’s history.

Even though all physicians are busier than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is nonetheless vital to raise awareness of the challenges encountered by physicians historically unrepresented in medicine, Gonzalez told Fierce Healthcare.

“Apathy has severe consequences which we cannot afford,” he said.

A board-certified vascular surgeon, Gonzalez is an assistant professor of surgery at Indiana University and co-authored a recent report that underscores the importance of enhancing mentorship and sponsorship relationships to improve diversity, equity and inclusion while promoting professional success. 

The report authors emphasize the need to groom leaders among those who are underrepresented in medicine. It begins with an earnest effort on the part of non-minority leaders to understand the inequities and discrimination challenges that their underrepresented peers face, the researchers wrote.

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The report was published in the Journal of Vascular Surgery. 

The report’s authors—from Regenstrief Institute, Indiana University School of Medicine and University of Washington School of Medicine—identify various groups underrepresented in medicine, especially surgery.

Those groups include women of any race or ethnicity, individuals identifying as Black, Indigenous, or people of color, those identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, plus (LGBTQ+), and those with disabilities. 

There are some essential differences between mentors and sponsors, the report notes. A mentor guides a mentee on skill and career development and offers advice, while a sponsor uses personal influence to advocate for the protégé’s career advancement. The roles may overlap, and mentors can become sponsors. Both relationships should rest on a foundation of trust, respect, open communication and commitment to furthering the junior person’s career. 

For those seeking to mentor people who are under-represented in medicine, he recommends suspending any disbelief and accepting that individual’s experience as real. It’s essential to acknowledge that even if both parties work in the same field, their experiences may be dramatically different, said Gonzalez, who also is an associate director for data science of Regenstrief Institute’s Center for Health Services Research, an Indianapolis-based research partner to Indiana University that engages in major healthcare innovations and studies.

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“Career development plans should be individualized,” he said. “There is no one-size-fits-all, and functioning as a sponsor requires a different set of skills than being a clinician or a researcher, meaning it’s an opportunity for your own skill development.”

The relationship becomes one in which both parties benefit from a give-and-take approach. “Usually, sponsors in a successful sponsor-protégé relationship find they get as much out of the interaction as their protégés do,” Gonzalez said.

For those under-represented in medicine, Gonzalez noted that some of their sponsors and mentors inevitably will be at institutions outside of their own employment. “This is an opportunity to break down barriers and silos between institutions.”

In addition to Gonzalez, the report authors are Elina Quiroga, M.D.; Karina Newhall, M.D. and Sherene Shalhub, M.D., of the University of Washington School of Medicine. All four authors are vascular surgeons.

The authors conclude that candid and direct conversations focusing on inequities are necessary to fully comprehend the plight of physicians underrepresented in medicine and enable them to reach their goals.