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Geisel School of Medicine Launches a New Longitudinal Coaching Program

After they graduate, newly minted physicians are thrust into the practice of medicine often without fully understanding the unwritten rules of the profession nor having given their professional identity much thought—two concepts that are generally not included in medical school curricula.

Geisel is changing that. For this year’s first-year class, the medical school developed and implemented a new coaching program to support medical students’ enculturation into the practice of medicine.

Under the auspices of Student Affairs, the program represents Geisel’s commitment to transform medical education and is an outcome of the school’s membership in the Kern National Network for Caring and Character in Medicine, a consortium of seven medical schools. A grant from the Kern Family Foundation co-funds the coaching program.

Groups of 5-10 incoming medical students are matched with a faculty coach who stays with them throughout medical school. The program structure empowers students to manage their professional development through individual reflective assignments, small group coaching sessions about common student challenges, and one-on-one quarterly meetings. By guiding, rather than teaching or advising, coaches help students consciously examine their professional identity, discuss their experiences, and create a professional development plan to address their learning needs.

“This is an important area for all physicians to work on—honestly, there is not a lot of curriculum about professional character development. Everyone needs guidance in this area,” says Kimberly Gifford, MD, coaching program director, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Geisel. “It is very important that students know this is to support them, not to fix something that is broken,” she adds. “By supporting their overall professional development, they will have more success becoming enculturated into medicine.”

Left to right: Nick Ryan, coaching program manager and Kimberly Gifford, MD, coaching program director. (photo by Kata Sasvari)

For Nicole Allen ’23, the coaching program has been a great experience. “It’s awesome, and refreshing, to have someone guiding me along these first months of medical school,” she says. “Simply writing out both long- and short-term goals—and then talking with someone about developing steps to achieve them—has helped me put everything in perspective, which can be hard to do in the midst of learning biochemistry.”

A needs assessment Gifford conducted revealed not all students are self-advocates. “Several were unable to name anyone they could go to for help and they felt nobody was on their side,” she says. “Some of the issues students face are because of a mismatch between their personal value system and the expectations of medicine. I’ve had students tell me, ‘I guess the only choice is for me to give up part of myself to go along.’ We are not advocating this.”

What Gifford is advocating is reducing this disparity by giving everyone equal access to a professional support network. “If we guide students to think deliberately about their professional development, including how they behave and understand the implicit expectations within the practice of medicine, we can help them maintain their personal values and be themselves—to really take control of that so they’ll be able to adapt to the medical culture.”

The coaches’ job is to help students figure this out.

“What students work on with their coach is not communicated to anyone with a grading role, meaning they can have candid conversations with their coach about their goals, challenges, and what they want to do within medicine,” says Nick Ryan, the coaching program manager.

Priscila Cevallos ’23 says having a point person to turn to for professional, academic, and life questions has been incredibly enriching during her first few months of medical school. “My coach has encouraged me to critically reflect on the experiences that are shaping me as a future physician. Together, we have set concrete academic and career goals for what I hope to accomplish by the end of each block and throughout my time at Geisel,” she explains. “He also encouraged me to shadow him in the ICU, offered to facilitate introductions to other specialties of interest, invited me over for dinner to meet his family, and ensured that my wellbeing is at the forefront of my medical school education. This personalized level of mentoring and investment in wellbeing is one of many reasons Geisel is a standout as a medical institution.”

Medical school coaching isn’t new, there is literature and data about smaller pilot programs ranging from a few sessions to one year, Ryan says, but Geisel’s program has potential for long-term impact for both medical students and the school. “There are few coaching programs in undergraduate medical education. The cool and distinctive aspect of our program is that it is longitudinal, with a steady rhythm of coaching sessions built into the calendar and focused on topics that support students on their journey to become a physician.”

“I’m really excited about the way things are unfolding,” Gifford says. “I think this will be an enjoyable and helpful experience for everyone.”