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Shannon Brownlee: Why Are Doctors So Bad at Talking to Patients?
Medicine + Humanities | November 02, 2011

Shannon Brownlee: Why Are Doctors So Bad at Talking to Patients?

In a recent TIME magazine story, leading health care expert Shannon Brownlee tackles the under-discussed issue of doctor-patient communications, and highlights a counterintuitive approach to medical education—through the humanities. We've all been there: face to face with a doctor, nodding pleasantly while not understanding a word that's being said. It’s the dreaded 'medical mumbo-jumbo' that advocates like Brownlee hope to erase.

As Brownlee points out: "When patients don’t understand what their doctors are telling them, they are more likely to stop taking a drug they need or take the wrong dose." A contributing factor to the lack of clear communication, Brownlee says, can be traced to the hyper-competitive nature of the medical school selection processes. The smartest and most motivated students take the pre-med package of hard sciences, which leaves little time for arts and humanities courses that are focused more on writing and speaking—on “communications”—than on, say, memorization. Brownlee argues that this narrow view which privileges scientific study is "emblematic of the central problem in our medical care delivery system — too much focus on fixing the technical problems with people’s bodies, and not enough work on caring for patients as individuals."

But there's good news, Brownlee notes. To combat this growing trend, America's top medical schools are beginning to offer alternative programs that focus on communication skills and the humanities:

Two years ago, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine launched a Humanities and Medicine Program which recruits students during their sophomore year of college and offers early admission into one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country, on the condition that they major in something other than the traditional pre-med hard sciences...At Columbia, there’s a program in Narrative Medicine, which uses readings from fiction, medical anthropology and philosophy to help medical trainees connect with their patients.

While these programs obviously include the science offerings needed to complete a medical degree, their inter-disciplinary nature reflects the true nature of medical work—of one person diagnosing, interacting with, and treating another. And as Shannon Brownlee deftly points out, the human side of medicine is not one that should be forgotten. Brownlee is the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Overtreated. She is the acting director of The New America Foundation’s Health Policy Program, and a much-sought out keynote speaker on health and health care reform.

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