Mentors Help Next Generation of MDs Embrace Future Challenges

Rural Alaska Among Locales for Med Students Exploring Professional Passions 

By Susan Kreimer
January 12, 2018

As millennials continue to constitute the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, they need seasoned physician leaders to help them excel.

In a rural town of 4,000 people, John Cullen, MD, FAAFP, relishes imparting his wisdom to the physician residents and medical students training in his family medicine practice in Valdez, Alaska, about 300 miles east of Anchorage.


John Cullen

“This is an extremely adventuresome career,” says Cullen, who is also president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians (his term begins in October 2018) and enjoys mentoring the next generation of clinicians.

In family medicine, “we deliver babies; we watch them grow up; we take care of them; we take care of their families; and we see them in the emergency room,” he says. “We admit them into the hospital, and we take care of the elders when they’re end-of-life. It is the entire breadth and length of human existence.”

As millennials continue to constitute the largest segment of the U.S. workforce, they need seasoned physician leaders to help them excel. Mentoring becomes part and parcel of grooming the next generation to embrace challenges in an ever-changing health care landscape.

Cullen, who shares an office with three other family physicians, welcomes the mentees to stay in his large house outfitted with a hot tub on the back deck overlooking the northern lights. It’s where he and his wife, Michelle, who teaches astronomy online, raised three children.


Cullen, who shares his office in Valdez, Alaska, with three other family physicians, welcomes mentees to stay in his large house outfitted with a hot tub on the back deck, complete with a view of the northern lights. | Photo from John Cullen 

“Our expectation is that medical students and residents will make themselves at home,” he says. “Practicing medicine is inherently stressful and is more so with the administrative burdens and dysfunctional EHRs that we currently are forced to deal with. My wife and I try to model successful ways of sustaining a fulfilling career and life in medicine.” 

Shadowing him in the clinic and beyond teaches mentees about work-life balance—eating well, carving out time for exercise and adequate sleep, and reaping fulfillment both on and off the job, Cullen says. The area is also “a microcosm of a larger community.”

Most of Cullen’s mentees come from out of state to experience Alaska while feeding their interest in rural family medicine.


For medical student Emily Dollar, her mentorship with Cullen − amid a backdrop of majestic Alaskan mountains − was transformational. She says her five-week rotation at his clinic heightened her interest in pursuing family medicine as a career. | Photo from Emily Dollar

Emily Dollar, a third-year student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, observed “a lot of really moving encounters with patients” during her five-week rotation in Cullen’s clinic. She soaked in as much as she could while Cullen did everything from removing moles to suturing wounds to performing colonoscopies.

Amid a backdrop of majestic mountains, the training was transformational. It heightened her interest in pursuing family medicine as a career. Temperatures descending into the teens didn’t faze the native of upstate New York. “I loved it,” Dollar, 25, says of her first Alaskan odyssey. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

Scenic vistas aside, she recalls being “impressed by the relationships that providers had with their patients, how well they knew them, how well they really understood the community and the family dynamics of the people they were treating.” She welcomed feedback from Cullen as they discussed the intricacies of decision-making and treatment plans.

Daniel hayes

Daniel F. Hayes

In a mentoring role, a physician should be able to delegate and feel a sense of selflessness. Only then can the physician feel comfortable relinquishing credit for a mentee’s accomplishments, says Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, immediate past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a professor and clinical director of the breast oncology program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor.

“Mentoring is important for everybody and every field unless you live in a cave somewhere,” Hayes says, adding, “In our field, especially in academic medicine, we continue to be a master-craftsman-apprenticeship type of situation.”

And if the apprentice has embarked on the wrong career pathway, the craftsman can help guide the mentee in shifting gears.


  • Contact the dean’s office early in your first year of medical school. Find out if the school provides a formal mentoring mechanism for medical students.
  • If your school does not offer a formal mentoring program, seek opportunities to meet physicians and faculty. If a lecturer impresses you, find out from the dean’s office how to contact him or her. If you are excited about a journal article or research project, track down the author. Get involved in special interest groups on campus. Contact state medical societies to help identify mentor candidates.
  • When considering a physician as a possible mentor, look for certain characteristics (similar interests, diverse background, good rapport with students, appears committed to student development).
  • Once you have identified a possible mentor, approach the individual and ask if he or she would be willing to advise you. Discuss expectations, and agree upon the nature and length of the relationship.
Source: AAFP


  • American Academy of Family Physicians: Mentoring resources, including details on applying for the Doctors Back to School program, joining member interest groups and connecting with mentors through local academy chapters. Go to
  • Association of American Medical Colleges Careers in Medicine: Allows students to explore specialties, career options and practice settings. Requires access code. Go to
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology: Diversity Initiative and Virtual Mentors Program

“Mentoring is very important to me, both as a receiver and a giver, and to ASCO, which is putting a lot of resources into mentoring opportunities,” he says.

Hayes’ mentor told him the achievement he’s most proud of is the caliber of fellowship trainees he has inspired to greater heights. “Our success is his success,” Hayes says. And that, he points out, is “a sign of a good mentor.”

Mentoring relationships can be formal (medical school programs, networking) or informal (leadership opportunities), according to the academy. Mentors are particularly important for minorities, women or students in medical schools that do not have a department of family medicine.

Paige Tomcho, DO, a family medicine physician at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, North Carolina, says “the mentor learns as much as the mentee from the interaction. Oftentimes, you stay friends with the person for years.”

At the health system spanning North and South Carolina, Tomcho serves as chair of the Physician and ACP (advanced clinical practitioner) Engagement & Wellness Committee. And she’s involved in its Center for Physician Leadership and Development, which offers a formal one-on-one mentoring program. Tomcho encourages mentees to explore  passions and envision where they would like to be five years from now, while connecting them with various people and departments. And she conveys the health system’s strategic priorities centered around growth, affordability and value. 

“Every mentee is a little different as far as what you would discuss,” Tomcho says. “It depends on where they are along in their journey.”

Susan Kreimer is a freelance health care journalist based in New York.

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