Monday, September 24, 2007

Mentor, Mentor, On The Net

There’s an old saying that if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, he will never starve. As the Internet has fostered the growth of an online MT community, many experienced medical transcriptionists have generously provided word help and technical tips to their colleagues in need using venues such as the KAMT-list, newsgroup and Arleen McGovern’s superb website. Unfortunately, one of the basic misassumptions about the Internet is that the veterans in any profession who participate in various newsgroups, mailing lists and message boards have nothing else to do with their time except act as free reference sources to those who are too lazy to do their own research. Another misconception is that the designation of someone as a mentor is a unilateral decision. In other words, someone wishing to be mentored can arbitrarily choose who they think should mentor them without necessarily bothering to ask if that person has the time, energy or desire to commit to such a project.

As a result, many veterans are confronted with a “Gimme, gimme, gimme” style of questioning which soon makes it obvious that the person asking all these questions is too lazy to pick up a reference book and find the answer. When a newbie is seen asking the same questions over and over again in different Internet venues – questions that can easily be answered in basic reference books with a minimum amount of effort – those who could be mentors often pull back and stop answering the newbie’s desperate pleas for assistance. Why? Because the whole point of mentoring is to teach someone how to develop the professional skills to survive on one’s own.

Mentoring involves teaching someone how to add learning skills, rethink the work process, and fine tune one’s professionalism, competency and cost effectiveness in the workplace. Mentoring is not about taking someone’s incomplete work and filling in the blanks (which leads to a situation where a newbie feels he is only required to do 75% of the job before he can hand his work over to someone else who will “top it off”).

In the course of his long and remarkable film career, actor Jack Nicholson has had an uncanny ability to encapsulate certain moments of dramatic intensity in a way that leaves an indelible impression on the public’s consciousness. With his incredibly plastic face he can communicate wonder, terror, vulnerability, horror, shyness or impish glee to an audience. But it is in A Few Good Men (based on Aaron Sorkin’s 1989 military courtroom drama) that Nicholson’s megalomaniacal Colonel Jessep nearly foams at the mouth as he snarls: “You can’t handle the truth.”

Conveniently ignoring the old adage that “You get what you pay for,” some Internet users assume that if they ask questions, they will receive free advice. Yet many such people display a wretched inability to handle the truths that become painfully apparent on various Internet mail lists and message boards.

Some of their questions take the form of “I’m starting a new medical transcription business. Tell me everything I need to know.” Or “I’m totally disabled, type 20 words a minute and can’t sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. But I heard that I can make a lot of money doing medical transcription from home. So I need you to teach me how to do this or point me to a correspondence course which will get me up and running in a week.” Their ingenuousness, coupled with a need for instant gratification (but absolutely no desire to take the time required to learn basic required skills) reminds me of a popular T-shirt which asks viewers “Why do I need algebra for a career in pornography?”

Due to the foolishness of some questions, aspiring MTs frequently receive answers they don’t want to hear. The mere fact that the answer was not sugar coated -- or spoon fed to the questioner like a cute little segment of Sesame Street -- can occasionally provoke a startling response. Instead of paying attention to the message, these people may launch a vicious attack on the messenger, accusing the messenger of being unprofessional. The ensuing flame war sometimes escalates into an e-mail version of the Jerry Springer show until the person who was initially asked for advice decides it is a total waste of time to argue with someone who obviously has a lot of emotional issues clouding his vision.

Many older and more experienced medical transcriptionists are appalled at the behavior they encounter on the Internet. Some are horrified by the vicious name calling and personal attacks they witness as women (who probably have high levels of internalized self-hatred) attack other women. As tempting as it may be to attribute such tiresome displays of dysfunctional behavior to “the oppressed sisterhood of medical transcriptionists,” the sad truth is that if many highly-skilled women in this field have failed to gain respect, it is because they can be their own worst enemies.

One subscriber to the KAMT-list recently generated a flame war by announcing that, because she had changed her medication, she was now behaving like a total bitch and felt that everyone else should know it. A veteran subscriber (who is an extremely well-respected source of information) called this woman on the carpet for assuming that her decision to change medications should become everyone else’s responsibility when, in fact, the complainer’s messages had made it crystal clear that she was simply too lazy to take responsibility for her own actions. It’s very hard for some people to understand that if they can’t take the heat, they should stay out of the kitchen. But, as Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep so accurately stated, it’s because they simply can’t handle the truth.

I have frequently written about how co-dependent behavior works its evil in the medical workplace with particular regard to women who have been socialized to suck up to doctors. Many MTs would much rather recite their woes to anyone who will listen than assume the responsibility for fixing what is wrong in their professional and/or personal lives.

Several years ago, a service owner thought it would be a great idea for her and her partner to fly out to San Francisco and tell me their whole sad story so that (a) they could get a tax-deductible shopping trip to San Francisco, and (b) I could commiserate with their problems. Since they obviously had no clue that I might have better things to do with my weekend than listen to them moan and bitch about their clients, computers and the competition, I made it very clear that their problems could easily be solved over the phone with a prepaid consulting fee. As soon as it became clear that there was a price on my time, their little jaunt to San Francisco got canceled and they decided to rethink their options.

I recently received a long, and dreadfully detailed e-mail requesting advice on how a woman should manage her medical transcription service. Her story was a textbook case of co-dependent behavior in which a desperate need to be liked was eating into her profit margins. Since I didn’t have much time, I suggested that she read a book entitled Codependent No More, follow it up with Codependent No More and Getting Better All the Time, and then get rid of those clients whose work was simply too labor intensive for her to make any money on their accounts.

At first this woman thought I was joking. However, after thinking it over, she sent me a very angry e-mail telling me what a terrible person I was for not being flattered and complimented by the mere fact that she had gotten up the courage to ask me for my advice. After telling me how she would have phrased her answers to her own questions, she let me know in no uncertain terms that she would always keep asking questions of people until she got the answers she wanted.

This woman’s fantasy of how to ask for and receive counsel from a CEO within her industry obviously did not jibe with what goes on in the real world. So I politely reminded her that she had been given some very good tips -- at no charge -- and suggested that the next time she saw fit to ask someone for their professional business advice, she be prepared to pay a consultant’s fee.

A middle school librarian who has done a lot of mentoring (and is very active on the Internet’s LM-Net mail list), my sister assures me that such nonsense routinely occurs in other professional arenas as well. Alice encounters a similar phenomenon whenever a neophyte posts a notice stating, “I have to teach this kind of course and have no idea what to do. So I need all of you to stop what you’re doing and tell me how to teach this course because I don’t have any time to research it myself.”

While some people on LM-Net will try to help, my sister is one of the few veterans who will openly admonish newbies to stop shirking their duties, not be so lazy and use the reference skills they were taught in library school in order to develop a lesson plan to teach the proposed course material. After one young librarian accused my sister of being extremely harsh and unprofessional in the advice she had given, Alice replied “I’ve been in this profession for 35 years. How long have you been in it?”

The bottom line is that mentoring newbies and helping them develop their professional skills is not about “playing well with other children.” In an era when most professional medical transcriptionists are overworked, and underpaid – as well as being physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted – answers are often tersely worded by necessity. The reason such answers do not arrive with a sugar coating is simple: No one has time to indulge wide-eyed newbies in such kindergarten-level coddling. Especially when the person on the receiving end is a full-grown adult claiming to be a professional.

Or, better yet, a peer.

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