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Surgeon Mentors: Facilitating the Future

by Elizabeth Hofheinz, M.P.H., M.Ed., June 28, 2019

How you spend your moments is how you spend your life.

Thus, when designing how to best spend those minutes, hours, days and years, sometimes what’s called for is a bit of guidance…sometimes a lot.

Enter the mentor…a fellow surgeon who can help shepherd you around the pitfalls and obstacles in your career—and sometimes in your personal life.

Meet Greg Mundis Jr., M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon at Scripps Health in San Diego. A mentee-turned-mentor, Dr. Mundis is quick to credit mentorship for enhancing the quality of his hours, days, and years. He tells OSN, “I was blessed to have one of best mentors ever—Dr. Behrooz Akbarnia. A gentleman, father figure, and friend, Dr. Akbarnia left me with a deep array of clinical insight, knowledge, and wisdom.”

“For the first five years of my training I had the impression that he was ‘in my face’ daily, opining on what qualities I needed to be an effective orthopedic surgeon. This barrage of knowledge and coaching was exactly what I needed however, as Dr. Akbarnia provided superb counsel as to how to treat patients. He emphasized the importance of the time we spend with them, the difference one can make with an academic career, and ultimately, that we need cherish the gift of being in a position to give life to others. He molded my adult life.”

“As Dr. Akbarnia’s qualities began spilling into my life I started having conversations with young surgeons and noted that the vast majority of them lacked this type of guided relationship. This was so disheartening that I decided to see if I could embark on an effort to help change that.

To do so, Dr. Mundis would have to dig deep and uncover the aspects of his mentoring experience that had been profound. “I began with asking myself this basic—but not simple—question: ‘How can we connect to others in a meaningful way?’ The problem with a formalized mentorship program is that it often feels like a forced connection. And, as described in its most simplistic terms, mentorship is a relationship…and nobody wants a forced relationship.”

So what did he come up with?

“At its core, a surgeon-surgeon mentoring relationship is a connection that demonstrates to the mentee how they can find a sense of wholeheartedness in their world…how they can find meaning and fulfillment by doing the right things each day—and learning from their experiences when they don’t.”

For Dr. Mundis, the first place to which he guides the mentee is the library…or these days, to the Internet. “I challenge them to engage in reading high-level books that help define who they want to be in their personal and work lives. They must know where they are headed if they are to get there. And there are often some tough tradeoffs that surgeons must make. “If you want to publish 100 articles a year then your family will surely suffer…the equation doesn’t work out any other way. If you tell me you want to take your children to school and pick them up each day and do 300 cases a year, well that’s not going to work.”

When it comes to setting goals, says Dr. Mundis, make sure the mentee is set up for success. “I like having the trainee make one goal as opposed to four. If we establish that the mentee will accomplish one goal a month then in a year that means he or she has had 12 wins. Sometimes surgeons want to bite off more than they can chew, so it’s up to the mentor to make those pieces bite-sized.”

No cape, no rescue.

“You cannot rescue a mentee. First, it’s not your role, and second, they need to fail so that the lesson ‘sticks.’ If, for example, you and your mentee establish a hard deadline for the completion of a book chapter. The mentee may say, ‘I’ll do it all in one month.’ It’s your role as mentor to slow them down and say, ‘Are you sure…because this is a lot of work, writing, reviewing, doing references?’ Each week the person says, ‘I got this.’ Then at the end of the month the goal has not been met. When I inevitably have to say, ‘I tried to warn you’ then they learn. They then understand that it’s probably better to listen to someone who has ‘been there’ when it comes to setting realistic goals. So in this case it would be better to say, ‘Have the introduction ready during the first week, then the methods are done in the second week, etc.”

On one end of the spectrum, says Dr. Mundis, it may be that a young surgeon just needs to send you an email about a clinical issue. On the other end, they feel compelled to ask you about a decision that affects their career/family balance. “The simplest situation is if someone has a difficult surgery coming up and needs technical advice, then you do a text/email/video chat. The mentoring situation is defined by that event and has a specific purpose.”

“Or perhaps the surgeon is moving into academic medicine and needs support and someone to advocate on his or her behalf. That mentoring relationship may change or end. Then there are the relationships such as the one I had where the mentor helps usher you to a place of a different way of thinking.”

Highlighting a gap in medical training, Dr. Mundis notes, “Surgeons are routinely approached by industry for their input on product design. As young surgeons have no formal instruction on how to craft and manage that process, I think such a situation is a win/win for both mentee and mentor. If I can help someone evaluate a product using critical thinking, then he or she can provide more meaningful information as a consultant and their value should rise. That is the type of mentoring relationship that could grow over time.”

To those who might want to mentor younger surgeons, Dr. Mundis advises, “It’s probably wise to have no more than two mentees at a time because these are active relationships. These surgeons and their issues are on my mind all of the time. Ideally you would be able to provide them with one hour of face-to-face time a month, in addition to texts and emails.”

What is not within the purview of a mentor?

While every mentor-mentee relationship is different, says Dr. Mundis, the one thing it isn’t, is a psychological counseling process. “The parameters should be clearly defined, and it should be clear that you the mentor is not a mental health professional. Of course, you should listen well to the mentee’s concerns, but make it clear that outside of your own life experiences you have no professional qualifications to issue formal advice. Ultimately, the relationship is a tool for guidance…and yes, sometimes it guides mentees to a mental health professional.”

One place to find a mentor…

When not at the hospital you can often find Greg Mundis on a mission of a different sort. “I am the CEO of Global Spine Outreach (GSO), an organization that seeks to transform the lives of children with spinal deformities who do not have access to spine care. When I am on the podium discussing GSO, one of the things I emphasize is that volunteering provides a mentorship in a way that no other experience can ever provide. For surgeons, the most intimate thing you can offer another surgeon is to operate by their side. We are at our most vulnerable in the OR, so if you can connect with someone in that arena, then that is a truly meaningful bonding experience.”

And young surgeons seeking mentorship can have the experience of a lifetime—and maybe find that special mentor—on a GSO mission. “If you’re in rural Mexico, and you’re operating next to a high-powered surgeon, the impact of your joint energy and talent is phenomenal.”

“Mentorship in my practice is responsible for the sustainability of my joy in medicine. I can treat 300 people a year surgically, but there are limits to that impact. Through mentoring you will double and even triple your impact. You will mentor people who will blow your mind…and you may be the spark they need to reach their personal best.”

As for his advice to those who want to be mentored, Dr. Mundis notes, “You must commit to taking necessary time to build trust. Make it easy on the mentor as far as time and location…make it convenient and don’t drag it out. Arrive on time and follow through with the agreed-upon next steps.”

“No one has ever suffered because he or she had or was a good mentor. I believe that mentorship should be part of the surgeon code, as going through such a process creates more high-quality and sustainable medical professionals.”

To learn more about a surgeon mentorship group near you, please visit: www.surgeoncatalyst.com.

To learn more about Global Spine Outreach, please visit: http://www.globalspineoutreach.org

Dr. Mundis’ recommended reading:

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

The One Thing by Gary Kellar

Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

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Elizabeth Hofheinz

Two time winner of the MORE award Ms. Hofheinz was the first writer employed by Orthopedics This Week. The MORE award is granted annually by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons to recognize excellence in journalism. Ms. Hofheinz resides in New Orleans, Louisiana with her entrepreneur husband and delightful daughter.

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