Recognizing the secret identity of physicians


It was recently National Teacher Appreciation Week, and many were busy recognizing their superhero teachers.  Schools dedicate the week to their teachers, parents bustle about with flowers, handmade cards, and gift baskets.   For me, though last week was an interesting reflection on how I define a teacher.  During Teacher Appreciation Week I recalled my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Frazier, who had me memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” decades before I would comprehend the true weight and meaning of the words.  I fondly remembered my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Abelman, who transformed our language arts class with creativity-infused projects to introduce Sherlock Holmes and Greek Mythology.

But a series of events, including random encounters with my former teachers, unexpected emails from former students, and a community building event with our talented and dedicated community of medical educators, helped transform my definition of the week and challenged me to recognize and celebrate this week within our medical institutions.

Physicians are among the most experienced learners in today’s world, having been exposed to more teachers than maybe any other profession.  By my crude, back of the envelope estimates, the average high school graduate will have maybe 50 teachers by the time she graduates from high school: an average college grad, perhaps 100 to 120.  But the average physician has upwards of 300 physician teachers by the time she completes her residency and at least another hundred when you include the nurses, social workers, respiratory therapists and pharmacists who contributed patiently to our long education.  We need to extend our internal definitions of “teacher” and recognize those who shaped our medical education, not just our K-12 experience.  Their life lessons and their impact upon us are profound.

The world of medicine is small and interconnected.  We are probably only a few degrees of separation from our other physician colleagues, and we have been inspired by and mentored by the same dedicated teachers.  Medicine is, in so many ways, a very long apprenticeship with many different master clinicians. As a profession, we rely upon one another for learning, growing, inquiring, questioning, answering, and reflecting.

Additionally, during our clerkships and residencies, we acquired a secret identity.  Underneath the white coat and the stethoscope is … a teacher!  It would be impossible in modern medicine to avoid this transformation, but it often goes unrecognized.  Clinician-educator tracks can be difficult for academic success, with funding sources limited and promotion a struggle. Despite the advent of academies for medical educators at some U.S. medical schools, medical education can remain a low priority, possibly due to outdated historical structures in academics, unreliable funding, and service pressures. However, where academies exist, positive impacts have been seen on the organizational culture, including networking, learning teaching and influence of teachers to transform organizational culture.

Next year, in support of clinician-educators and the teaching superpower in us all, medical centers and medical schools should widely celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week.  In shifting our definition of teacher to include our teachers of medicine, we can celebrate and recognize the myriad of individuals who shaped us on our long academic journey.

Lindsay Mazotti is a hospitalist and can be reached on Twitter @doctorlindsaymd.

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