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Medical Lesson: Learning to Relate to Patients

Beth Harre (left) and Sarah Russell talk about their experiences as first-year medical residents.
Franklyn Cater, NPR
Beth Harre (left) and Sarah Russell talk about their experiences as first-year medical residents.

Medical schools and residency programs are under pressure to train doctors who are good communicators and compassionate with patients. It's a huge challenge, as young doctors are overworked and often overwhelmed by the realities of the health care system.

One program that is addressing these issues is a monthly lunch for first-year medical residents at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Barron Lerner, an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University, runs the program. He wants to help the residents think about the doctor-patient relationship -- and ways of humanizing the hospital experience.

The lunch series was started by two doctors at New York-Presbyterian who had cancer. They realized their experience as patients would be a valuable teaching tool.

There are perennial topics that come up in these lunches: breaking bad news, dealing with difficult patients, medical mistakes.

Dr. Jonathan Newman, one of the young doctors, says he feels troubled that he's become a party to what can be a dehumanizing process in the hospital. "You watch people get stripped of their dignity," he says. One of the things that makes it tolerable, he says, is that there are "moments of care."

For Newman, one of those moments came when he took a leukemia patient out to the park in her wheelchair -- to talk about anything but her illness and to cross, briefly, the line between doctor and friend.

Lerner, the program director, hopes the discussions he leads may help these young doctors take those steps outside and -- in a medical world whose economy demands a fast pace -- help them remember how to listen.

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.