Fort Worth Med School Wants to Stop Making Scary Doctors

A doctor in a white coat walks into a examination room. The patient’s diagnosis: veisalgia. There is no cure, only treatments. The patient will have to live with nausea, lethargy, muscle aches and a sensitivity to bright light and loud noises. Doctor leaves the room. Next patient.

Relax, dude, it’s just a hangover. Why did this imaginary patient go to the doctor for a hangover? It doesn’t matter. It’s certainly not because the writer of this story actually has a hangover as he dredges up a rhetorical example for a story about a new medical school in North Texas that will begin teaching future doctors how not to talk down to patients.

Even if he did, that does not discount the fact that doctors can induce anxiety in patients when they describe even the simplest of medical issues and follow-up instructions in scientific jargon and terminology. So a new medical school in Fort Worth is rolling out a first-of-its-kind curriculum that will condition future doctors to be more sensitive in how they relate with patients.

“We don’t want any of our future doctors to be that intimidating presence in the room.” — Dr. Stacey Vanvliet

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“I’ve seen the impact that is made when you sit down with a family rather than stand over them,” says Dr. Stacey Vanvliet,  one of the educators inside the Texas Christian University-University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Medicine. “We don’t want any of our future doctors to be that intimidating presence in the room.”

The school will be among the first in the nation to have a dean position tasked with empathetic communication between doctors and patients, as well as between the physicians. Dr. Evonne Kaplan-Liss has been named the assistant dean for narrative reflection and patient communication, the curriculum's official title.

The curriculum is part of a growing trend among medical schools that goes after communication between doctor and patient, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Vanvliet is one of 12 physician development coaches. The work she and her colleagues are doing is one aspect over the school’s overall approach to empathetic medical treatment. They will focus on doctors’ personal awareness and effectiveness in how they treat people.

Medical schools have traditionally made students learn in the classroom for the first two years. In the second two years, they move into clinical work. At the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, students will do clinical work as soon as their first year. Part of this will be pairing the students with real patients. The students won't be trained to treat patients yet, but they will navigate with patients through various medical treatments and facilities.

The students will follow the families to experience how people receive medical treatment. This will hopefully train doctors to be patient allies rather than instructors. Vanvliet says this is a shift from focusing so much on the science of treatment to prioritizing the emotional toll people experience while dealing with medical professionals.

The use of jargon is a big problem in medicine. Students at the med school will be forced to think about how they’re giving instructions to patients rather than just what they’re saying to them.

“You do find that sometimes when you’re speaking as a physician with that white coat on, there are some families that will nod and say yes even if they don’t understand what you’re saying,” Vanvliet says.

The school will also tackle stereotypes about doctors. Vanvliet says the notion that doctors have to be impervious to stress, that they have to have nerves of steel, plagues the medical field. The communication curriculum will teach doctors how to rely on each other more for support and to get more comfortable with opening up about their struggles.

“Physicians are people, too,” Vanvliet says.

Outside of the curriculum, staff within the administrative wings of the school are also being trained to help the students get through the rigors of med school. The office of student affairs will offer resources that teach mindfulness and stress resilience to the students, resources the school hopes the doctors can take with them to the job.

Medical students will begin taking classes at the school in 2019.
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