Medical faculty get a playbook for newest role: academic “coach”

Brendan Murphy , Senior News Writer

A great coach may not possess the skills to flawlessly execute a task. What they lack in technical skill, they make up for in know-how, allowing a coach to craft strategies to help a learner master a skill set.

That notion is a central theme in “Coaching in Medical Education: A Faculty Handbook.” The digital publication aims to provide a practical framework for medical educators who are forming programs for medical student coaching.

The handbook features eight chapters on academic coaching, each of which was written by faculty members at a school in the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium. Topics within the text include “Building a coaching relationship with learners,” “Coaching diversity and change,” and “Evaluating coaching programs.”

To effectively guide faculty members on the role an academic coach plays, the coaching handbook first defines what a coach is not: A coach is not a mentor. A coach is not an adviser.

Mentors are selected by a mentee and their role is an informal one. The mentor typically holds an advanced academic rank and has a significant track record of experience that is relevant to the mentee.

Advisers are assigned to learners and typically have a vast knowledge of the curriculum and career knowledge pertaining to the learner’s areas of interest. The adviser role is one that the student sees as an advocate.

An academic coach’s background in the learner’s area interest is less relevant. Their purpose is to equip the learner with self-awareness. This often means obtaining data related to academic performance, finding a learner’s weak spots and honestly—sometimes critically—assessing them during one-on-one meetings. The eventual result of these meetings should be a plan of action to improve on those areas of need.

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Maya M. Hammoud, MD, MBA, the AMA’s director of medical education innovation, co-edited the coaching handbook.

“Academic coaching focuses on student-centered development, which capitalizes on students' strengths and empowers them to be leaders,” said Dr. Hammoud, also professor of obstetrics and gynecology and learning health sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“As health care becomes more and more complex, and physicians take a variety of roles in the system, it is important that medical students develop good habits of self-reflection and are able to define and pursue their individual goals,” she said. “Effective coaches help learners reach their goals which leads to high levels of achievement and personal satisfaction so they develop to their fullest potential as physicians.”

Learner-coaching programs are not in place at most medical schools, but they have become more common in recent years.

Nicole M. Deiorio, MD, co-edited the AMA coaching handbook. Dr. Deiorio believes the traditional student-adviser role is less relevant in modern medical education.

“Advisers are set up to answer students’ questions, but sometimes the student is still learning what they need to be working on,” said Dr. Deiorio, a professor of emergency medicine and assistant dean for student affairs at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). “Coaching fixes many of those potential holes.

“Students need to be more active in the education process today, as opposed to models in the past, where you just showed up and performed at a reasonable level for four years,” she added. “Now, students have to take responsibility for the depth of their education.”

OHSU boasts a robust academic coaching program, with 32 faculty coaches working with the med school’s 600 students. The program is entering its fourth year, meaning the first cohort of students who benefited from coaching throughout their medical education will graduate in the spring.

Dr. Deiorio has noticed a difference.

“Students are already coming into their later years of medical education with an understanding that it’s OK to have areas that you’re working on,” Dr. Deiorio said. “That’s typical and part of our culture here. We try to address that head on and not have that be something that you are hiding from classmates. We have seen strides in normalizing that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.”

The coaching handbook is being distributed at the AMA ChangeMedEd™ 2017 National Conference, taking place Sept. 14–16 in Chicago.