The medical literature almost uniformly addresses the positive aspects of role modeling. Still, some authors have questioned its educational value, a disagreement that is probably due to differing definitions of role modeling. If defined as demonstration of skills, provision of feedback, and emulation of specific professional behaviors, then role modeling is an important component of clinical training. However, if it is defined as a learner’s unselective imitation of role models and uncritical adoption of the messages of the learning environment, then the benefits of role modeling should be weighed against its unintended harm.
In this Perspective, the author argues that imitation of role models may initially help students adapt to the clinical environment. However, if sustained, imitation may perpetuate undesirable practices, such as doctor-centered patient interviewing, and unintended institutional norms, such as discrimination between private and public patients. The author suggests that the value of role modeling can be advanced not only by targeting role models and improving faculty performance but also by enhancing students’ reflective assessment of their preceptors’ behaviors, especially so that they can better discern those that are worth imitating. This student-centered approach may be accomplished by first, warning students against uncritically imitating preceptors who are perceived as role models; second, showing students that their preceptors share their doubts and uncertainties; third, gaining an insight into possible undesirable messages of the learning environment; and finally, developing policies for faculty recruitment and promotion that consider whether a clinical preceptor is a role model.