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I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the few paediatric registrars allocated to an Adolescent Inpatient Mental Health ward for a 6-month rotation. Although I’d worked in (adult) Psych wards before, I had few well-formed ideas about psychiatric theory or practice past how to “do a take down”. In Shem’s House of God, the future psychiatrist repeatedly states, “Good medicine is doing as much nothing as possible”. Until this term, I wasn’t entirely sure what that was, and I knew even less about what to expect when caring for young people.

As this opportunity is becoming rarer by the year and the rarefied air of Inpatient Adolescent Psychiatry is far removed from most paediatric practice, this is the second post in a series aiming to help understand the work (and underpinning theories) seen on the inpatient unit. 

Several months before my rotation through Adolescent Psychiatry, much was made of term supervisor allocation. I was pleasantly surprised on arrival into psych that the approach to mentoring and clinical supervision is quite different from that in paediatric training.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on the origins of medical training; until Osler introduced the intern/resident medical officer-style system we use today, much of medicine was a one-on-one apprenticeship. Some, including Dornan, have argued in favour of a “new apprenticeship model”, but for most trainees, as we change rotations, roles or hospitals regularly, a longstanding, whole-of-training supervisor might feel like a pipe dream. In this respect, psychiatry was not particularly different to paediatrics, but, in general, the supervision approach was quite different from what I’d previously experienced.

What happens during supervision?

Each team member, from the case manager to the consultant psychiatrist, is allocated a senior supervisor. The pair are scheduled for one hour of protected one-on-one time every week. This is enshrined in the RANZCP program stipulates, “Of [the 4 hrs/wk clinical supervision], a minimum of 1 hour per week must be individual supervision of a trainee’s current clinical work.” I can’t think of any other clinical job I’ve done where there is this kind of opportunity, let alone a mandatory requirement!

What does this mean?

This augmented my education and changed my overall experience from what could easily have been a paediatrics trainee “just muddling through” to being a functional team member, able to work independently in clinically challenging situations. Although I’m speaking of my experience, the general principles that this kind of supervision fosters include establishing and maintaining an active/mentoring role, frequent contact, open dialogue, identifying opportunities for learning and discussing multiple domains of practice.

A good mentor and active supervisor mean much more than reducing the likelihood of the awkward end-of-term assessment most of us have endured in our junior years. By its nature, my supervision experience in psychiatry was more immediate and active. The supervisor and trainee would see several patients together each week and discuss the clinical interaction.

It is possible to parallel this in medical specialities, as it is a key part of a consultant ward round. However, it must be actively held in mind by the supervisor, in addition to patient care. Interestingly, in 2004, a Danish group published a validated checklist assessing ward-round performance in internal medicine. Although this kind of tool, along with other standardised forms, undoubtedly has its place for objectively measuring skill attainment and improvement, the many aspects of medicine learned from mentoring are often numerically elusive.

Frequent contact leads to the supervisor having a better handle on the trainee is progress. Running counter to this, the trainee establishes a greater chance of understanding the supervisor’s philosophies of practice and, hopefully, the opportunity to humbly question and challenge them!

This increased overall fidelity (rather than one tired afternoon as a chore) enables the opportunity to discuss clinical work, system issues, learning points, and more grand theories of practice and professionalism.

Much has been written in recent weeks about physician well-being, and I’d speculate regular meetings might also enable a supervisor to become both aware and active at an earlier stage for a doctor struggling with burnout or overwork, rather than picking up the pieces of an upset, overburdened registrar mid-term, or much worse. Supervision is a vital part of a culture of care.

What are the barriers to supervision?

With some months of hindsight, I perceive the main barriers to this kind of supervision in paediatric training are threefold:-

Firstly, and most profoundly, the culture of making time and the will to include this as paid work. Many departments battle for protected teaching time, reasonable hours and a safe clinical workload. Non-clinical time is at a premium for everyone in service. In this context, supervision might strike many as an inefficient, unproductive use of time to have both a trainee and a consultant unavailable for an hour each week. There is a solid argument to the contrary; as Bradfield observes

[t]here is overwhelming evidence that closer clinical supervision of junior doctors results in better patient outcomes, in the same way that double-checking reduces medication errors in a nursing context.

Secondly, the immediacy of supervision may be heavily diluted. I’ve alluded to check-box supervision above. Additionally, one or two sessions in a three-month rota often equate to a global impression that is too diluted to utilise pragmatically. It is frustrating that an observed ward round is more likely to terminate with the consultant dashing off to the clinic rather than a thoughtful, timely discussion about the morning’s caseload.

Thirdly, the goodness of fit between the supervisor and trainee probably plays a role. Understandably, not everyone gets on with everyone. Not all physicians are, by nature, extroverts, teachers or energised by their work, qualities which may be more or less helpful for mentoring. This isn’t something to modify aggressively, but more an observation of personality, culture and the world, and bears consideration as a barrier to close supervision.

This topic isn’t new, having been more comprehensively reviewed in Bradfield’s take on the 2008 Garling Report into the provision and governance of Acute Care Services in New South Wales Public Hospitals.

Taussig & Blalock; senior peers.

What about supervision for senior staff?

Everyone benefits from senior supervision, irrespective of experience. The consultants in the Adolescent Unit also had supervision every week. As a junior observing, this seemed to evolve with a clinician’s experience; from the outside, depending on the experience differential, this appeared as either a grandparent-parent interaction and, as the age and experience of the pair narrowed, two older professional siblings discussing their work thoughtfully and with joy.

The further I extend this metaphor, the more supervision strikes me as being about communication between generations of clinicians. Interns (consciously or subconsciously) model their thinking and behaviour on their immediate peers and seniors, often those with whom they have the most contact.

Within this framework, registrars are the adolescents of the medical world; they have developed sufficiently as clinicians to think and act and are often looking for guidance about transitioning to (clinical) adulthood.

Having senior peers effectively in the role of parents and grandparents is indispensable in guiding, modelling and nurturing the “adolescent” clinician through these tricky years. Further, the parallel key roles of the consultant and the parent, to be bigger, wiser, stronger and kind, are equally applicable in mentoring. Like parenting, the most important thing is to have someone willing and able to supervise and hold the younger in mind.

References and Further Reading

Bradfield, O.M. “Ward rounds: the next focus for quality improvement?” Australian Health Review, 2010, 34, 193–196 

Dornan T., Osler, Flexner, apprenticeship and ‘the new medical education’ J R Soc Med. 2005 Mar; 98(3): 91–95.

Garling P . Final report of the Special Commission of Inquiry: Acute Care Services in NSW Public Hospitals. Sydney: NSW Government, 27 November 2008. Accessed June 2017.

Nørgaard K, Ringsted C, & Dolmans D., Validation of a checklist to assess ward round performance in internal medicine. Medical Education 2004; 38: 700–707

Pelling, N., Barletta, J. and Armstrong, P. The practice of clinical supervision. Bowen Hills, Qld. : Australian Academic Press, 2009.

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), Supervisor Manual. 2012. Accessed Feb 2017



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5 thoughts on “Supervision”

  1. Thanks for the post Henry.
    I think the thing that struck me upon experiencing ‘Supervision’ in Psychiatry is how the emphasis is different too. It’s not always so much about clinical teaching, but instead it’s a safe place to explore your psychological responses to patients and the issues they raise within your own internal experience, a true ‘how can you help others if you don’t psychologically look after yourself’ style approach.
    There are however, sometimes some problems with it too. Sometimes I needed a supervisor I could talk to whom I could explore a difference of opinion on patient management with : an option not always available if the person providing ‘Supervision’ is also your clinical supervisor. Secondly, sometimes that forced hour of supervision made me feel like a little catholic kid trying to make up a sin to confess for church : I couldn’t think of any particular issues to discuss, and didn’t know what to do with the time.
    As I became more in tune with Psych and realised this was less of a teaching session and more a safe space to explore my own responses to the challenging cases we experienced, I really began to enjoy that opportunity to safely reflect upon my own emotions.

    I know this is going to sound awful, but sometimes I find the recent social media posts emphasising ‘wellness’ unhelpful and slacktivist. There’s so many cliches about work life balance etc, but for me, I think if medicine is serious about ‘wellness’, we need to start with investing in adequate ‘Supervision’, in the full Psychiatry sense of the word. Because if we don’t have a safe space to reflect and learn from our emotional responses to the little daily traumas we witness in critical care, then all the tweets in the world about mindfulness aren’t going to do a damn thing.

  2. Thanks for the comments; I certainly agree that seeking supervision is the responsibility of both parties, and avoidance of same can be in itself instructive!

    My perception is that supervision is most actively sought not when driven by stick nor carrot, but from the internal will of both parties, and the belief that it helps their practice.

    I agree that the pragmatics of shift work and access are profoundly different to “office-hours” specialities; pro-active scheduling doesn’t guarantee that things will actually happen!

    In the above post, I mentioned seeing my consultant visibly and regularly seeking supervision. This is essentially mentoring an approach to supervision! Formal consultant-to-consultant supervision isn’t something that is particularly visible in other specialities; I wonder if promoting a culture of supervision at all levels would drive buy-in by both trainees and seniors alike.

    Thanks again for your insights

  3. Great post, spot on with the barriers.
    I think it’s important to consider the role of the trainee in this as well as they are half the relationship.
    It’s important for us to empower our trainees to ask for supervision and mentoring, but also to expect them to do it. Anyone who has tried to be a mentor will recognise the frustration of the mentee that does not seek help. While this is usually a marker that they DO need support (though perhaps they don’t think you’re the right person to provide it), it’s sad that medical culture silences them.
    We need to teach our trainees in medical school (or earlier) that seeking help is looked upon in a positive light.

  4. Thanks Henry, lots of great points here. Emergency medicine has similar issues in the practicalities of arranging this kind of supervision. It’s much easier to do when you both have fixed timetables, but for those of us working shifts that’s clearly impossible.

    What I have done for several years now is to give trainees open access to my diary. They are encouraged to book a time with my PA to meet every two weeks (minimum) for routine discussions and follow up.

    I think it’s a good idea, but in all honesty it does not work quite as well as I have hoped and we probably manage about once a month in a formal setting (though obviously more informally). Even that appears to be much more than in many hospital placements which is really disappointing.

    Thanks for the reflections and suggestions.



  5. Great post Henry. I think supervision would be extremely valuable in our training. I particularly like your comparison of registrars and adolescents ?