Autonomy and developing physicians: Reimagining supervision using self-determination theory

Med Educ. 2021 Jun 5. doi: 10.1111/medu.14580. Online ahead of print.


In this article, we address the question, 'What is the role of autonomy in physician development?' Medical education is a developmental process, and autonomy plays a motivational role in physician development. Calls for increased supervision of residents have raised concerns that the resulting decreased autonomy might interfere with resident development, leading the authors to explore the relationship between supervision and autonomy. The medical education literature posits a simple inverse relationship between supervision and autonomy. Within competency frameworks, autonomy is operationalised as independence and viewed as the end goal of training. Alternatively, there is emerging empirical literature describing autonomy and supervision as dynamic and developmental constructs and point towards more complex relationship between supervision and autonomy. Self-determination theory (SDT) presents a framework for understanding this dynamic relationship and the role of autonomy in physician development. Within SDT, autonomy is a fundamental psychological need, associated with motivation for learning, self-regulation and an internal locus of control. Supporting learner autonomy can afford learners the opportunity to internalise the values and norms of the profession, leading to an integrated regulation of their behaviours and actions. Conceptualising autonomy through the lens of SDT provides an avenue for education interventions and future research on supervision and autonomy. Educators can integrate supervision and autonomy support in the clinical setting, seeking to motivate learner development by balancing optimal challenge and support and integrating autonomy support with 'hands-on' approaches to supervision. SDT also provides a theoretical framework relevant to current discussions regarding feedback conversations and coaching in medical education. Lastly, conceptualising autonomy using SDT opens new avenues for investigation, exploring the complex relationship between supervision and autonomy and developing efforts to integrate autonomy support with clinical supervision.