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Mentorship, learning curves, and balance

  • Meryl S. Cohen (a1), Jeffrey P. Jacobs (a2), James A. Quintessenza (a2), Paul J. Chai (a2), Harald L. Lindberg (a2) (a3), Jamie Dickey (a4) and Ross M. Ungerleider (a4)...


Professionals working in the arena of health care face a variety of challenges as their careers evolve and develop. In this review, we analyze the role of mentorship, learning curves, and balance in overcoming challenges that all such professionals are likely to encounter. These challenges can exist both in professional and personal life.

As any professional involved in health care matures, complex professional skills must be mastered, and new professional skills must be acquired. These skills are both technical and judgmental. In most circumstances, these skills must be learned. In 2007, despite the continued need for obtaining new knowledge and learning new skills, the professional and public tolerance for a “learning curve” is much less than in previous decades. Mentorship is the key to success in these endeavours. The success of mentorship is two-sided, with responsibilities for both the mentor and the mentee. The benefits of this relationship must be bidirectional. It is the responsibility of both the student and the mentor to assure this bidirectional exchange of benefit. This relationship requires time, patience, dedication, and to some degree selflessness. This mentorship will ultimately be the best tool for mastering complex professional skills and maturing through various learning curves. Professional mentorship also requires that mentors identify and explicitly teach their mentees the relational skills and abilities inherent in learning the management of the triad of self, relationships with others, and professional responsibilities.

Up to two decades ago, a learning curve was tolerated, and even expected, while professionals involved in healthcare developed the techniques that allowed for the treatment of previously untreatable diseases. Outcomes have now improved to the point that this type of learning curve is no longer acceptable to the public. Still, professionals must learn to perform and develop independence and confidence. The responsibility to meet this challenge without a painful learning curve belongs to both the younger professionals, who must progress through the learning curve, and the more mature professionals who must create an appropriate environment for learning.

In addition to mentorship, the detailed tracking of outcomes is an essential tool for mastering any learning curve. It is crucial to utilize a detailed database to track outcomes, to learn, and to protect both yourself and your patients. It is our professional responsibility to engage in self-evaluation, in part employing voluntary sharing of data. For cardiac surgical subspecialties, the databases now existing for The European Association for CardioThoracic Surgery and The Society of Thoracic Surgeons represent the ideal tool for monitoring outcomes. Evolving initiatives in the fields of paediatric cardiology, paediatric critical care, and paediatric cardiac anaesthesia will play similar roles.

A variety of professional and personal challenges must be met by all those working in health care. The acquisition of learned skills, and the use of special tools, will facilitate the process of conquering these challenges. Choosing appropriate role models and mentors can help progression through any learning curve in a controlled and protected fashion. Professional and personal satisfaction are both necessities. Finding the satisfactory balance between work and home life is difficult, but possible with the right tools, organization skills, and support system at work and at home. The concepts of mentorship, learning curves and balance cannot be underappreciated.


Corresponding author

Correspondence to: Meryl S. Cohen MD, Division of Cardiology, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 34th Street and Civic Center Blvd., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19104, United States of America. Tel: +215 590 2402; Fax: +215 590 5825; E-mail:


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