23 July 2018

Dr Chris Tiplady, Director of Education at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, explains why being a great supervisor doesn’t end with being a great doctor.

A few weeks ago I met with a previous trainee of mine. He doesn’t know it, but he has had more influence on my career direction than nearly anyone else.

We first met when I was just starting out in medical education and he was struggling with his mental health. I was taking over from his current supervisor, who at that time was not handling this well – saying things like, ‘don’t worry, everyone feels like this in the first year, just toughen up and get a thicker skin’. But the trainee ended up needing inpatient psychiatric care and a year out of clinical practice – the feelings he was having were not the usual first year nerves.

At the time, I didn’t know exactly what to do for him. My first response was to treat him almost like a patient, to try and fix things myself, to take a history, to ask about his past and his treatment. Doing what I thought at the time was right. But then had my own little epiphany: I was not this trainee’s doctor – I was his supervisor. I had a professional responsibility to support him, not a duty to treat him. That little mind shift meant I got the right people involved from Occupational Health and the Deanery. I was able to signpost this support and step away from the medical condition. I was also there to help when he came back to his post, putting into place the advice I was given by his Occupational Health team about rotas, on-call duties and hours of work.

Getting supervision right

Following this episode I have learned, read, been on courses, discussed, written policies, trained others and shared everything I could to make sure we don’t fail a trainee like this again. It nearly went so wrong for him – and being a doctor did not mean I knew what to do when someone was ill. Rather, as a supervisor, I needed a completely different set of skills and approaches.

Those skills and approaches are now rightly considered a fundamental part of medical competence. They are part of the GMCs Generic Professional Capabilities Framework and are going to become an assessed part of the training curriculum for all pathologists. So there’s never been a better time to talk about getting supervision right.

For those of us taking on this role for the first time, or indeed those who just want to hone their skills, I want to share my tips to keep it enjoyable, interesting and rewarding. Because a hospital full of good supervisors is a safe hospital: full of people who can reflect, who can be challenged and who can learn from mistakes.

1. Set the scene

Make the training environment feel safe from day one. Plan, be a good role model, introduce the team, make everyone welcome. Ask how people are and what they were up to at the weekend. Make sure you state the importance of a lunch break and tea break – especially when on call. When the boss gives permission to take lunch it makes a real impact. A good induction should also include the little things like where you sit, where to put your coat, where people eat and what everyone will be doing all week.

Trainees won’t worry so much about raising concerns or suggesting improvements when they feel comfortable.

2. Treat your educational role as you do your clinical role

Being a good doctor does not automatically make you a good supervisor. Get the CPD you need – read, go on courses, reflect, observe, get the certificate. Seek feedback on how you are doing. Make mistakes and learn from them. Twenty six years into my career, I still keep getting things wrong, but unless you ask you will never know.

Also, make sure you are appraised in your role as a supervisor and set aside time to do it in your job plan. If the latter doesn’t work in your Trust, then spend a year recording exactly what you do, and make sure that is discussed at your next appraisal.

3. Become dispensable

It may feel good to be the only person in the department who can do something, but don’t be the last of your species! Think about who could replace you all the time – it might not be the person you expect. Look to give others responsibility and new skills, because people enjoy learning and work best when they’re stretched just the right amount. Show others what you do and how you do it. It may be a pain for a while, but this will reap dividends time and time again.

4. Be more vulnerable

Supervisors should be good listeners and approachable. By showing when you don't know or when you are uncomfortable, your trainees will be much more prepared to say when they are out of their depth.

Thinking aloud is a great teaching technique and really easy to do – for example, when I’m sat reporting blood films with medical students, I describe my uncertainties, what I am balancing up when I write things and voice what I am basing my decisions on. When I am in clinic or on ward rounds and don’t know what the diagnosis is, I say that to the team – it stimulates debate and gets everyone contributing.

5. Ask, don't tell

Don’t just give solutions to every problem. This is something I’ve learned more recently, after completing training as a coach – something I wish I’d done much earlier! It has taught me to use a different approach in supervision, using open questions to explore what a trainee knows, why they do things, what knowledge they are drawing on and allowing them come up with their own solutions. Help them improve their performance through well-delivered feedback – you’ll be greatly encouraging their independence.

Invest in your skills

In summary, to be a great supervisor, you will need to invest time and effort into your own learning. Take time to reflect and discuss training in your department. Look at the skills you already possess and make a plan to grow them.

In doing so, you will reap rewards for patients and for your own wellbeing – and, like me, you might play an important role in helping someone keep their career (and life) on track. That trainee is now back at work, having just landed his dream job, and it makes me feel so happy to know I played a small part in helping him flourish.