Giving technology tips to older doctors should be done delicately

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By — Posted Feb. 27, 2012.

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Ryan Jones, MD, an internist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who is less than two years out of residency, realizes it could come off as showy if she stands over the shoulder of older colleagues, offering suggestions on how to become more tech savvy.

"I do definitely try to be very sweet about it," she said. Her methods have proven successful as colleagues generally have welcomed the advice -- just as she welcomes their unsolicited advice on ways to be a better internist.

Like many in her generation, Dr. Jones has found herself in a "reverse mentoring" role. That is a phrase coined by former GE CEO Jack Welch more than a decade ago, when he realized there was a lot about the Internet that he and many of his older-generation executives needed to learn. He ordered more than 500 executives to seek out younger employees in the company to serve as mentors and teach the executives the ins and outs of the Internet.

Today, reverse mentoring is happening in health care organizations across the country, albeit in a less organized way than presented at GE. (Also, it's usually not referred to as "reverse mentoring.") Younger doctors who grew up using technology are stepping up to help the older generation adapt to information technology, social media and smartphones.

Andrew Ritcheson, PhD, is a senior program manager and consulting psychologist for Dynamic Research Corp., a business consulting group that has provided support to both the Defense Dept. and the Dept of Veterans Affairs in implementing a range of health care initiatives. He said that although many physicians are open to receiving help from younger colleagues, there is a fine line between helping and insulting. There are ways to keep everyone's focus on a goal of improved care, rather than worrying about if someone crossed that line, Ritcheson said. Everyone must know they can reach that goal as a team, with each member contributing his or her own strengths and acknowledging that each has something to learn from the other. (See correction)

Shirley Engelmeier is CEO of InclusionINC, a workplace diversity consulting and training firm in Minneapolis. Although she recommends a more formal approach to reverse mentoring that includes discussion groups and regular feedback sessions, she said younger doctors should assess if the practice has an environment conducive to reverse mentoring. Everyone in the practice must be willing and open to hearing new ideas, she said, regardless of how those ideas are presented.

Assuming that the environment is ripe, there are suggestions for making reverse mentoring a positive experience for everyone:

Understand the reasons for resistance to technology. Though a physician's reasons for not embracing a new technology may seem eccentric or old-fashioned to a younger physician, Ritcheson said, those physicians sometimes have good reasons. The mentor should accept those reasons and tailor his or her approach to that person and his or her beliefs. For example, the issue might not be that a physician is rejecting a technology, but that it hasn't become as automatic as it has to a younger doctor, said Philip Bonanni, MD, associate chair of the Dept. of Medicine at Unity Hospital in Rochester, N.Y.

To younger doctors, using technology is second nature, much like practicing medicine is to physicians who have been treating patients for several decades. Things become automatic because you've been doing it so long, said Dr. Bonanni, who has been practicing medicine since 1965. Though physicians may understand technology and even embrace it, using it has not yet become automatic. But the older doctors will get to that point. It just takes time, and the younger generation can help in that process, he said.

Communicate in terms physicians understand. If the mentor talks in terms that describe the technology as a tool that will make their lives better, as opposed to IT-speak about bandwidth and megabytes, the message will come across more clearly, experts said. Older doctors will get to the point of accepting the technology if it helps them, Dr. Bonanni said

Approach mentoring in the right context. Maria Hernandez, western region director for InclusionINC, said there's a right time and place for everything. For example, telling someone there's a better way to do something in front of a patient would be a wrong time and place. Hernandez said those assuming the mentor role should know how to choose their battles. Although someone else's way may be less than optimal, it may work for them and there may be more pressing things they need to know.

Don't put your foot in your mouth. Hernandez said friendly suggestions, tips and reminders should be given in a way that promotes dialogue, as opposed to one person telling the other what to do. Instead of saying, "You should do it this way," the suggestion can be made in the form of a question: "What would happen if we tried this?" It's the "spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of advocacy for something you are trying to do," she said.

Have mutual respect and good listening skills. Dr. Jones says she tries to come across as helpful when she makes friendly suggestions to certain colleagues. But, she said, mutual respect helps prevent hurt feelings.

"I'm obviously pulling on his coattails all the time, ... asking questions about medicine, so it's nice to also offer my advice in the area of technology," she said. "It's a give-and-take relationship."

Dr. Bonanni said younger doctors always have helped out older doctors, and vice versa. "To teach is to learn, and to learn is to teach," he said.

"We're delivering care as a team," he said. "So being a mentor doesn't necessarily mean you are the senior person. It means that you are willing to provide what you've learned, what you know and what your experience and background provides you with, while others give you the same thing."

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