Faculty Coaches Support Medical Students Beyond the Classroom

Practicing physicians affiliated with Tufts’ clinical partners help School of Medicine students develop personally and professionally through a coaching program

Gabriella Ojeda-Badillo, M23, was in her first year of medical school when her sister passed away from breast cancer. As Ojeda-Badillo and her family grieved, the demands of medical school, already intense, threatened to become overwhelming. She found an “incredible” source of support in James Bartz, clinical associate professor of medicine and physician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, who has been the coach for Ojeda-Badillo and nine classmates from their first day at Tufts University School of Medicine in July 2019.  

“I was able to talk to him about how deeply my personal life and my medical studies were impacting each other. He helped me make it through my first year,” said Ojeda-Badillo. “It would have been very difficult to find that support without the coaching program.”

Medical schools have long provided students with academic advisors, but coaches fill a very different role, and the School of Medicine was one of the first to incorporate coaching into its Doctor of Medicine curriculum, starting with the class of 2023.

The program grew out of the school’s regular self-assessments of its curriculum, says Jessica Shah, assistant dean of student affairs and coaching director. “We asked ourselves how we could help each student reach their full potential and do as well as they possibly could?”

Coaching future physicians focuses on career exploration and decision-making, relationships, wellness, and development of a professional identity based on individual goals, strengths, and values. Every incoming class of 200 M.D. students is divided into groups of ten, each coached by a practicing physician with at least five years as an attending doctor at one of the school’s clinical partners, from Tufts Medical Center to Maine Medical Center. For the next four years, through frequent one-on-one and group meetings, that coach will be a sounding board, professional guide, friend, cheerleader, and, sometimes, a shoulder to cry on. Never will they be a judge.

“[Medical students] not only have to learn a huge amount of information...

They also need to cope with emotional challenges, from dissecting their first human cadaver to working with patients who may be very ill, suffering, even dying.”

James Bartz, clinical associate professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine

“Coaches are unique in being someone with whom the student has a personal relationship and who is also keeping track of their professional development, including all of their evaluations, but without ever evaluating them,” says Sarah Rosenberg-Scott, M06, assistant professor of family medicine, who has been a coach since the program began.

Because coaches are not judges, students feel free to ask questions, confess doubts, and reveal weaknesses and struggles. In addition, the coaching groups, which each include a range of backgrounds and interests, give students a ready network of peers whom they can turn to from day one.

Sarah Rosenberg-Scott, M06, an assistant professor of family medicine who has been a coach since the program started.

Sarah Rosenberg-Scott, M06, an assistant professor of family medicine who has been a coach since the program started. Photo: Alonso Nichols / Tufts University

Dan Finch, M23, who says the coaching program was a significant factor in his decision to attend Tufts, recalls the first anatomy lecture that he and his new classmates attended. “Afterwards, everyone looked shell-shocked, wondering how we’d ever retain anything from that firehose of information. I remember our coaching group asking one other, ‘What on earth just happened?’ Dr. Bartz gave us the space we needed to process and reflect. He reminded us that while it might seem impossible at that moment, all doctors get through this. He said, ‘I’m confident all of you will as well.’”

Students pursuing an M.D. face ever-changing demands as they move from classroom and laboratory to providing hands-on patient care and navigating different clinical settings. Doing well on the U.S. medical licensing examinations is never far from their minds. “They not only have to learn a huge amount of information... they also need to cope with emotional challenges, from dissecting their first human cadaver to working with patients who may be very ill, suffering, even dying,” Bartz says.

In this whirlwind, coaches help students stay focused, says Alexander Roche, M23. “It’s important to have someone who knows the reality, and can say, ‘Hey, those things are coming down the road but right now you should think about focusing on how to manage your time effectively,’ or whatever your particular situation is.”

Few decisions are more momentous for a medical student than choosing a specialty, and good decisions involve both the professional and the personal realms. “They’re inextricably linked,” says Rosenberg-Scott. Natalie Bettez, A19, M23, was accepted through Tufts School of Medicine’s early assurance program and always thought she would go into internal medicine. When she ended up leaning toward family medicine, she sent an urgent text to Rosenberg-Scott, who helped her sort things out during what Bettez calls “an almost crisis moment.”

As the first doctor in his family, Calvin Ludwig, M23, felt it was particularly important to consider all specialties. Ultimately drawn to the holistic nature of internal medicine, Ludwig agonized over how to explain his decision to his mentors in other fields. He turned to Bartz for advice on how to approach these conversations. “He said, ‘Calvin, they’re going to be happy you’ve come to a conclusion and are moving forward.’ He was right, and it was a weight off my shoulders,” Ludwig recalls. He also credits Bartz with suggesting tools to cope with medical school’s many stresses, so he can now talk to his fiancé about them “without burdening him to a harmful degree.”

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program; the coaches do, too. Shah meets with the coaches every two weeks to exchange ideas and build camaraderie. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition to the deep personal satisfaction he finds in nurturing the next generation of physicians, Bartz points to research showings that doctors who coach students have reduced symptoms of burnout—a growing problem—compared with those who don’t.  

“I think that 100 percent of coaches would say they have learned from their students,” says Rosenberg-Scott, who counts coaching as one of her most rewarding professional experiences. “I see my fourth years now and how they are going to be my colleagues.”

Senila Yasmin, M25, recently brought part of what she’s learned from coaching to her role as an instructor in the School of Medicine’s Teachers and High School Students (TAHSS) program. TAHSS introduces high school students of varied backgrounds to the health care professions, and attending TAHSS in 2014 was “one of the biggest reasons” why Yasmin felt there could be a future for her at the School of Medicine.

“When I worked with the high school students this summer, I applied some of the same reflective listening techniques that helped me,” Yasmin says. “So, when my students ask that I talk about myself, I start with, ‘Tell me about you and where you see yourself.’”

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