Published: 03/10/2002 Volume II2, No.5825 Page 26

Establishing a mentoring programme for new consultants at one trust has proved a learning experience for all concerned.Eric Waters explains Ishall never forget my first day as a new consultant. It was in May 1985. I was Salisbury District Hospital's first ever accident and emergency consultant.

There was no-one to greet me. I just had to get on with it. At the end of my first day, a surgeon put his head round the door. 'If you have any problems, do feel free to drop in, ' he said.He was the only person to take the trouble to say that and I am forever grateful to him. I felt very, very alone.

Now we have an induction programme, but I felt for some time we needed more - something to make a real offer of friendship and support.

Then Dr Michael Durkin, director of clinical performance, Avon and Wiltshire workforce development confederation, told me about the mentoring programme he had started at Gloucestershire Hospitals trust when he was medical director there, and put me in touch with a company offering a day and a half-long course in mentoring skills for consultants.

A consultant who had been given a mentor said:

'Having a mentor, one feels there is a sounding board, confidant, giver of encouragement and, above all, a source of knowledge.My mentor has been a constructive, critical friend who challenges, coaches and helps to develop greater self-confidence.'

I wrote to our consultants asking for volunteers to take the course. I said the purpose of the mentoring scheme would be to give newly appointed consultants a confidential source of knowledge, advice and support and help them find their way in the trust. I reminded them how vulnerable a new consultant is both personally and professionally and that the scheme could contribute to our clinical governance programme.

The response was encouraging. I got 11 volunteers and their responses invariably began, 'If only I had had someone to talk to.'

The masterclass in mentoring, a one-day course, was an intensive learning experience for us.

We had two facilitators who were experienced at board level in the NHS and private sector.We analysed the role of the mentor and the structure of a mentoring session, discussed and practised mentoring skills, including how to listen, question, give feedback and build a relationship.

We also gained insights into our own and others' personality types through discussion of the MyersBriggs personality inventory we had completed before the course.Myers-Briggs is a personality test widely used in professional development questionnaires and we found the results fascinating.We also felt it helped us develop our mentoring skills.

Each participant had already agreed who they would mentor.The task was for each of us to get in touch and hold two mentoring sessions before the follow-up course, which was scheduled for two months later.

I was nervous about whether the volunteer mentors would have time to attend, but they all came to the follow-up course and all completed one or two mentoring sessions.We shared our experiences and the facilitators presented case studies of mentoring experiences in other trusts, some of which posed challenging ethical dilemmas. By the end of the morning we had agreed how our scheme would work.

We would need enough trained mentors to offer a choice to each newly appointed consultant.

We agreed to meet in six months' time to monitor progress and improve our skills.

Looking round the room, I felt I had gained much support.

I had 11 consultants, trained and enthusiastic to act as mentors.The chances were that a lot of the problems that might otherwise end up at my door would be picked up and nipped in the bud.

And, in helping the individual consultants, the mentors would also be helping the trust. But I had not appreciated some of the benefits the mentors themselves had derived from the course.

Several of the group made plans to meet again, to compare notes or seek advice on particular issues.

I knew many in the group had problems in relationships with colleagues and they freely acknowledged that they had learned a great deal from the course.One said that if I had asked for volunteers for a course in communication skills or people skills, they would probably not have come.

But the course had been about basic humanrelation skills and they had found it valuable.

Through the mentoring scheme, we hope to build a network of supportive, professional relationships that will help us work together better for the benefit of our patients.

It will also ensure that no new consultant feels as alone as I did on that first day.

Eric Waters is medical director, Salisbury Health Care trust.