The public is “on a blind date” with science and medicine, said actor Alan Alda. The two sides don't know each other very well and they're still deciding whether they trust and feel safe with each other. That could be why patients demand to receive a non-existent Ebola vaccine but pass on getting a flu shot.
Alda spoke at the annual meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges being held Nov. 7-11 in Chicago. Alda is best known for portraying Dr. “Hawkeye” Pierce on the television show “M*A*S*H” from 1972 to 1983. He mostly talked about his experiences as host of the PBS “Scientific American Frontiers” series from 1993-2005 and how it led to the founding of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University in 2009. A 10-hour course is now mandatory for incoming students at Stony Brook's School of Medicine.
He cited a 1999 study that found most doctors only let their patients speak for 23 seconds before they interrupt them. This was an improvement of a similar study done 15 years earlier where doctors interrupted after only 18 seconds. So patients now “can get another symptom in,” Alda quipped.
Empathy and clarity are the two foundations of communicating medical and scientific information, Aldo explained after telling about his best and worst interactions with the healthcare professionals. The best involved a doctor in Chile who explained the procedure and all his options before getting started. The worst involved a U.S. dentist who didn't verbally answer any questions but responded later with a letter that sounded like he was preparing a legal defense.
Alda noted that the operation in Chile involved removing about a yard of damaged intestine and sewing the two good sections together. Alda said he told his doctor that he had performed the procedure, known as an anastomosis, numerous times on “M*A*S*H.”
At the center in Stony Brook, future doctors and scientists use improvisational theater techniques to improve communication and learn how to distill their message to patients, the public, lawmakers and regulators. What the center doesn't do is offer tips.
“If you're going to play piano at Carnegie Hall and never had a lesson, it doesn't help to tell you 'Here are three tips,'” Alda explained.
After his formal presentation, Alda engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer period that included offering tips on dealing with people who are “utterly certain and utterly wrong,” what can be done about “stagnant” federal funding of scientific research, and dealing with a sound bite-seeking media.
Alda said politicians can be moved by dramatic stories of how people are helped by research. He said he's heard politicians repeat verbatim the very same stories he told them. Also, empathy helps.
“A guy who just went through a calamity with cancer in his family will listen differently than someone who thinks everything is hunky dory,” he said.
If medical researchers get frustrated with the media reducing complicated issues into meaningless sound bites, they can establish direct connections to the public through their own videos, blogs, Facebook and social media, attendees were told.
“I've been told by scientists how glad they were to have an extended conversation,” Alda said, who received a standing ovation as he left the stage.
Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks