I almost quit my job during my third year as a hospitalist. When I began my first hospitalist job out of residency, I was going to be “just a doctor” forever. After all, being at the bedside, holding my patients’ hands, making them feel better one by one was the reason I went into medicine.
Fast-forward three years. I was now a mom and still “just a doctor,” still holding my patients’ hands. Yet, somehow, it was just not enough. I pondered for a year, at times pessimistically, about my hospitalist future: the endless overnight shifts, the weekends away from family, the “spent” feeling after seven days on service. I needed to do something else. I, and many other hospitalist colleagues, went through this phase. I call this “the three-year itch.”
Fast-forward some more, I am a little better at knowing why the three-year itch occurred. For a lifelong hospitalist, it is a major milestone. It is the moment when you realize you are in love with the field of hospital medicine, want to continue for a long time, but also have this scary revelation that you cannot sustain the current status. I suppose this milestone is a natural occurrence, hardwired in our hospitalist-innovator, hospitalist-writer, hospitalist-mom, hospitalist–IT guy, hospitalist–palliative care physician, hospitalist–soon-to-be chief medical officer mind. While hospitalist groups attempt to improve job satisfaction and sustainability by hiring more nocturnists, increasing compensation, designing flexible schedules for moms, etc., I argue that, for many of us, mentoring is paramount in maintaining job satisfaction and sustainability.
Early-career hospitalist mentoring is essential during the first three years of practice as it ensures a smooth transition and assimilation into hospital medicine. While I was surrounded by accomplished hospitalists early in my career, I never realized how essential it was for me to establish a connection with one of them until I was “attacked” by the itch. What exactly does the three-year itch involve? A Hinami et al study plotted job fit against years in current practice. An inflection point at two years of practice became apparent. These first two years, called the “assimilation period,” are when “rapid learning and attrition took place.” Perhaps some of the observed phenomenon are to be expected and unavoidable. However, providing mentorship resources during this vulnerable period would potentially decrease attrition.
I did not quit my job, but I knew I needed to find direction for myself. I spent countless hours on emails, meetings, and, yes, moping around about my future. I wished so often back then that I had a mentor to guide me. My lack of mentorship was not unique. In a survey of 222 pediatric hospitalists, only 44% said they have “adequate mentorship in their careers.”
For more than a year, I was asking the wrong question: What makes a career in hospital medicine satisfying? The Society of Hospital Medicine Career Satisfaction Task Force paper delineated 13 factors, including optimal workload, substantial pay, control over personal time, and collegiality with other physicians, that contribute to job satisfaction for hospitalists. While there are common trends, factors that affect job satisfaction are highly variable across practice models. How do you reconcile the weight of at least 13 factors that contribute to your happiness at work? Having a mentor to brainstorm ideas about job satisfaction for me would have focused my energy productively early on and, more important, could have led to more career satisfaction.
Finding a Mentor
Finding a mentor takes a lot hard work. It takes boldness, creativity, perseverance, and a bit of luck. My quest to find a mentor started at the hospital’s cafeteria with senior hospitalists. It then led me to a few meetings in the C-suite and the chiefs’ offices. I asked MDs, nurses, and quality officers the same question: “How did you get to where you are?” I emailed everyone and met with many. I suppose I was bold (and some may say ambitious), but for me, it was out of necessity. I was pleasantly surprised at the time generously given to me. The willingness to listen was bestowed even by random strangers whom I had never met. I remember very well the day I decided to email the most “famous” hospitalists in the Boston area. I heard back from all except one. I ended up having coffee on a crisp winter morning at a famous hospitalist’s house in the Boston suburbs. I almost trucked in the textbook she had written for an autograph! My path also led me to an hour-and-a-half conversation in a light-filled office in downtown Boston. Leaving at 6:30 p.m., I remember being giddy. I did not find a mentor that very specific day, but I found direction and purpose, which are what I had been looking for.
Sometimes you just have to do it yourself—build your own mentorship program from scratch. I did it at my own institution. There is a paucity of literature on this subject matter. This problem intensifies manyfold for community hospitals like mine. I was never sure of the right way to start a program. Do I start by identifying senior faculty mentors for the group, providing a list of available mentors for interested hospitalists to choose from, or creating a peer mentor network? I was certain though that doing something, even if not as well from the onset, was an improvement. This is where luck matters: I am lucky to be practicing among the most intelligent, ambitious, like-minded colleagues. We have different priorities, and each of us is blazing a separate career path. Yet I sense that we have one thing in common: We are energized and want productive careers in hospital medicine.
Starting a new program also requires leadership support. I fortunately have had unrelenting support at my hospital. Support from leadership comes in various forms: funds set aside for administrative support, assistance in networking to identify potential mentors, expertise (such as in writing and publishing), feedback on the proposed program structure. At the end of the day though, sometimes you just need to start.
While experienced mentors are desperately needed for academic hospitalist groups, a bigger need for mentors exists at community hospitals like mine compared to academic hospitals. Community hospital programs are typically smaller and more recently established, and hence, the pool of experienced and senior hospitalists typically is limited. In tertiary-care settings, mentors are needed to ensure scholarly productivity and promotion, while mentors are needed in community hospitals to ensure career satisfaction and job sustainability. Two years ago, I conducted a professional development survey of my colleagues. Of the 20 hospitalists (70% response rate) who responded, 19 (95%) answered yes to the question, “Are you professionally satisfied with your current hospitalist job?” This tracks well with the 92% of pediatric hospitalists who reported that they are “pleased with their work.” Yet burnout rate was reported to be 29.9% in 20119 and 52.3% more recently.
Why is there such a discrepancy? I think one of the clues lies in the fact that 85% of my colleagues are thinking of pursuing an interest in addition to practicing clinical hospital medicine in the next 10 years. I want to be clear that my fellow hospitalists and I are not looking to leave clinical medicine. We love it. Most of us envision our professional lives in clinical medicine. Yet we need to fulfill our “diastoles.” We also believe in the intertwined nature of a hospitalist’s life and that of a quality officer, a palliative care physician, a billing and compliance officer, etc. We know that as hospitalists, we are well-positioned to improve the care of our patients even when we are not at the bedside. As community hospital hospitalists, we are the grass-roots hospitalists with tremendous potential to impact the care of patients and the future of hospital medicine. We, as much as academic hospitalists, need a mentoring hand for our professional development.
I am “itching” now, six years after finishing residency. There are many days where the “What now?” phrase echoes in my head. Yet with the mentors who I have found, I know that I will have ready listeners when the restless voice gets loud. What troubles me is that many of the 44,000 hospitalists nationwide are suffering through the restlessness without mentors to guide them. The current call to bolster mentorship resources at academic centers, while important, is not enough. Attention, discussion, research, and definitely resources should be allocated to the development of mentorship programs for community hospitals like mine. Of course, I am interested in academic promotions, grants, and FTE support, but the journey of finding mentorship has been most significant in that it led me back my core value: I still want to be “just a doctor” forever. I just know a little more about what type of doctor I want to be. Mentorship is vital to our professional development, job satisfaction, and sustainability as community hospitalists.
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