Intended for healthcare professionals

Career Focus

E-mentoring: its pros and cons

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39421.771412.CE (Published 05 January 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:s7
  1. David Macafee, specialist registrar in general surgery (dmacafee@doctors.org.uk)
  1. Northern Deanery

Abstract

David Macafee looks at an alternative to face to face contact

Junior doctors need to experience a culture of development and learning, where asking for help and engaging in dialogue about personal and professional issues are encouraged. In a study of face to face mentoring in medicine, Connor and colleagues found that the most common issues raised by mentees were professional concerns, work and career issues, and personal circumstances.1 One of the conclusions of Connor and colleagues' paper was that all junior doctors, newly appointed consultants, and senior doctors who felt isolated might benefit from mentoring.

Almost all mentoring in medicine to date has been face to face, and this is sensible within a single institution. However, in regions with large commuting distances, shift working, and rising travel costs, finding time and suitable locations to meet may be challenging.

E-mentoring

E-mentoring has aims similar to those of face to face mentoring, but primarily uses electronic communications such as internet, email, telementoring, and cybermentoring to build and maintain the mentoring relationship (Perren L, unpublished review, 2002). Email offers an economical and environmentally friendly way of mentoring by impinging less on the participants' time.

E-mentoring is a new concept to medical education, but it has been active in the public and private sector for over a decade. It has been used in nursing to aid recruitment and retention, in the NHS to support aspiring clinical managers, and in business to support courses, give career or business development advice, and provide a link between students and future employers.

Boxes 1 and 2 summarise the possible advantages and disadvantages of e-mentoring compared with face to face contact.

Does e-mentoring work?

A one year pilot study done in 2006 showed that most surgical senior house officers (eight out of 10) and research fellows (four out of four) found e-mentoring to be a useful independent form of support and advice (Macafee D A L, unpublished). It remains a new addition to medical training, and so further studies in larger groups of trainees from multiple specialties are required.

E-mentoring in the Northern Deanery

E-mentoring studies are ongoing in this deanery for two reasons. The Northern and Yorkshire Deaneries have a strong background in face to face mentoring and the Northern Deanery covers the breadth of the country from coast to coast. E-mentoring could potentially provide additional support (from a distance) while reducing commuting costs and time. Four key points underlie the process:

  • It is confidential

  • It is independent of assessment (that is, the e-mentor is an adviser or friend not an examiner or educational supervisor)

  • It endeavours to aid development through support and constructive challenge

  • It is entirely voluntary.

E-mentoring in the north east currently focuses on surgical trainees and aims to provide an independent, confidential, primarily electronic based mentoring programme to aid trainees within the specialty training year 1 and year 2 programmes. E-mentoring could be undertaken in any other medical specialty as long as interest and training of e-mentors can be ensured and e-mentees also show interest.

What does it entail?

Every two months the e-mentee completes a questionnaire which considers their skills acquisition, satisfaction with training, additions to CV, work-life balance, and career goals in the short, medium, and long term. It also asks the e-mentee to describe at least two positive and two negative points of the past two months (for example, solo appendicectomy—positive; delayed diagnosis of perforated bowel—negative).

The questionnaire is then reviewed by the e-mentor, who offers some feedback or suggestions. They might ask for further information or suggest alternative options for resolving a particular issue. Subsequent emails discuss the points raised between e-mentor and e-mentee as they see fit: helping the e-mentee to identify issues or goals and deciding on a plan of change rather than purely being a source of advice.

Final thought

Some may see mentoring as something only for struggling doctors. Although mentoring may be appreciated most at difficult times, it can also be a source of inspiration when things are going well, helping to maintain your momentum of improvement, seize new opportunities, and set new goals.

Box 1: Possible advantages of e-mentoring

  • Flexibility in pace and scheduling as communication between mentor and mentee is asynchronous

  • Mentoring process can be remote—does not have physical or geographical boundaries

  • Mentoring environment may be more comfortable for the mentee, whether at home or in a comfortable environment

  • Provides a written record of discussion and progress for later review and reflection

  • Mentee may be more open to someone whom they do not see at work

  • May reduce mentee's feelings of intimidation or discomfort

  • May provide quicker access to supportive information and resources

  • Allows mentoring to be available to someone not at work

  • More than one electronic communication method can be used (eg, threaded discussions, chatrooms)

  • Programmes can potentially be expanded at minimal additional start-up costs

Adapted from Griffiths and Miller2

Box 2: Possible disadvantages of e-mentoring

  • Mentees and mentors need internet access

  • Cost (if new software and hardware have to be purchased)

  • Both must have basic information technology skills

  • Establishing a rapport may be difficult (particularly with someone you have not met before)

  • Loss of visual cues and non-verbal communication

  • Currently little research evidence supporting e-mentoring

  • Must be able to express coherently feelings and thoughts on paper or screen

  • Privacy and confidentiality may be compromised

  • Personal liability—the written (and saved) word rather than spoken word

  • Mentoring boundaries may become blurred

  • Mentor may become too accessible (and boundaries could become blurred)

  • E-mentoring could be more time consuming than face to face mentoring

Adapted from Griffiths and Miller2

References

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