Though Alan Alda may have only played a surgeon on the television series M*A*S*H, the actor visited Ann Arbor on Friday to discuss effective communication between doctors, patients and the public.
Alda, who has also been featured in in “The West Wing” and “The Aviator,” spoke to a 250-person audience in University Hospital’s Ford Auditorium.
During his talk, Alda explained his founding of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The center aims to enhance scientific understanding by training scientists and health professionals to communicate better with the public, their patients and the media.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Alda said the courses offered by the center help scientists, doctors and medical students use writing to effectively communicate with their patients and the public.
“I thought if we could have long-range programs and courses taught, not just in improvisation, but in writing, making your work clear and free of jargon, that would be beneficial to scientists, to the public, to the country and to medicine when you apply it to medical students,” Alda said.
Building from personal anecdotes in his talk, Alda said when doctors show more empathy towards patients, hospitals are less likely to face lawsuits. He added that if doctors connect with patients, the patients are more likely to listen to advice, share all symptoms and follow the recommended course of action.
Medical School student Margaret Puelle said communication is one of the most important skills she needs to possess upon graduation, but it can get lost when she is in the process of recalling specific facts from the vast amount of information she has memorized.
“Everything he’s talking about is really important,” Puelle said. “It is really important to think about how to communicate and actually understanding the science is only the starting point.”
University alum Walter Dishell said teaching doctors to communicate effectively is a particularly important endeavor.
“As a group, doctors are not good communicators,” Dishell said. “You often hear the discussion about bedside manner. A lot of doctors do not have a bedside manner. It really means that you don’t communicate with your patients.”
Alda said when scientists or doctors speak with the public, the primary goal is often getting their audience to remember what they are saying. He said James McGaugh, a University of California, Irvine neurologist and expert on memory, has told him memories take place in the presence of emotion. For this reason, Alda said his center is designed to forge meaningful and emotional connections between doctors or scientists and their audience.
“If you’re in the examining room and you’re sitting back in your chair, you’re not leaning in, you have a cold look on your face because the patient happens to be a case to you and you’re not remembering that they’re a patient, that’s going to lose some attraction,” he said.