Intended for healthcare professionals


Good doctors need good role models

BMJ 2016; 353 doi: (Published 19 July 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;353:i3538
  1. Kathy Oxtoby, freelance journalist
  1. kathyoxtoby{at}


Kathy Oxtoby looks at the part that role models play in doctors’ careers

Role models are important throughout doctors’ careers “until we walk out the door having retired,” says Vivien Lees, a consultant plastic surgeon and Royal College of Surgeons council member. “A role model is somebody you admire,” she says. “You want to emulate their behaviour and professional skills, but may not be aware you look up to them, and it may not be a professional relationship. They shine a light on ‘what to do,’ and make it coherent to others.”

This is a different role to that played by a mentor, Lees argues. “Your mentor not only establishes a key relationship with you, but also helps and advises you about your career,” she says.

Claire O’Donnell, a year three core psychiatry trainee, also believes that having a role model is not necessarily the same as having a mentor. She says that “a role model is someone who inspires you and someone you aspire to be, while a mentor is someone who offers regular supervision and ensures you are going about your daily practice appropriately.”

Nonetheless, sometimes a role model and a mentor can become one and the same person. “I had a mentor who I also saw as a role model,” says Shema Tariq, an honorary consultant in HIV and a clinical research fellow. “She was an academic working in my discipline who mentored me. But I was able to look at her career, and see her work as an example of how I would like my career to progress.”

Having guidance from role models can improve doctors’ practice. Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a consultant liaison psychiatrist at King’s College Hospital, London, remembers “a very kind surgical consultant—an unassuming man who took care of patients, and also junior doctors.” Wessely says, “He was a courteous consultant and I took from that experience that courtesy is an important attribute, both as a doctor and as a person.”

For women, having a female role model can be inspiring, particularly when they are working in areas that have traditionally been dominated by men. “If you want to be a surgeon there are a lot of messages suggesting that it’s not for you if you’re female,” Sara Hedderwick, a consultant in infectious diseases at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, says. “But seeing successful female surgeons allows you to believe that you can be successful too.”

For those doctors who do not come from medical families, having a role model in medicine can be a source of support. “I didn’t come from a family steeped in medicine,” says Shirley Remington, a former consultant anaesthetist working in post graduate medical education. “As a doctor dealing with difficult situations, it can help to have a role model to guide you.”

Having a positive role model can encourage behaviours that can’t be learnt in a lecture. “A lot is talked about the need to teach junior doctors values like ethics, compassion, and resilience,” says Wessely. “I don’t think you can teach those attributes any more than the army can teach people courage. I admire those who possess that most important aspect of being a role model—to teach the things that can’t be taught.”

How to be a good role model

Elizabeth Elsey, currently doing a PhD in surgical attainment and competency, and a specialist trainee year 5 in adult general surgery: “Being a good role model is about being approachable, such as when a doctor asks you for advice. You need to be open to engaging with others.”

Beryl de Souza, joint Medical Women’s Federation London regional representative: “Be supportive of anyone who approaches you for advice and have integrity in all that you do—even when no one is watching.”

Shema Tariq: “Being interested in the development of those more junior than you shouldn’t be ‘an extra thing’—it should be the ‘bread and butter’ of what you do. Don’t see yourself as a role model—see it as part of the job description.”

And how not to . . .

Shema Tariq: “I’ve worked with people who were bad role models—brusque, bullying, and judgmental. Some made comments about women going off and having children and needing maternity leave, where the subtext was that it was a strain on the service and when they came back they would be less devoted to their job . . . A bad role model can actually be useful as they can clarify how you don’t want to practice. Some past colleagues have had appalling communication skills—not how you would want to be.”

Shirley Remington: “The bad role models I have come across were often people who were abrupt—who were too busy to find out the full facts of a situation before making a clinical decision, and also those who had a ‘chip on their shoulders,’ and who didn’t develop theirs or others’ practice.”


  • I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.