America’s favorite doctor offers remarkable insight into how to improve communication

Enlightening perspective on how to improve the care experience for patients sometimes comes from unexpected places. It might not surprise you to learn that one of America’s best-known, most-beloved doctors has authored a book that provides great insights into how to make communication in health care better – until you learn that that doctor is Hawkeye Pierce.

Since he retired as the head surgeon in the 4077th M*A*S*H unit on the iconic 70s television series, Alan Alda has devoted his time and intellectual energy to more than just acting and directing. During the 11 years he spent interviewing scientists for the documentary series Scientific American Frontiers, he became fascinated with how people communicate effectively. The results of his subsequent research are shared in his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Communicating. Alda’s work has enormous implications and insights for all of us who care about making the care experience better for patients and family members.

Alan Alda - Doctor Empathy Patient Experience
While Alda’s book is full of fascinating research about what makes communication between human beings work, I believe all of his insights comes down to one straightforward truth: we need to stop worrying so much about what we say and concentrate more on how we listen and truly connect with others. This is especially true, I believe, in healthcare.

In the closing summary pages of his book, Alda reflects on a conversation with Liz Bass, who was the first director of the Center for Communicating Science. In describing the most notable aspects of her work, Bass explained, “One thing that struck me is how sort of universal this desire to communicate really is and how good people feel when they sense that connection.”

But if that’s true, why don’t all of us communicate better more often? Bass theorizes that people usually “don’t identify the thing that made that connection good.” Said another way, she said, “I think people don’t pay that much attention to what they are paying attention to” when they are communicating in an effective, satisfying way.

Alda agrees. For those who desire to communicate more effectively – which I hope would include all professionals who work in health care – he has this aspiration: “I hope they’ll pay attention not so much to the mechanical things, like a sudden change of pace in a talk or a sudden change of volume in their voice,” he explained. “I hope they’ll pay attention, instead, to the source of that pacing and volume, which is the connection with the other person. That connection makes us respond like a leaf in the breeze to whatever is happening in the faces of those in front of us.”

… responding like a leaf in the breeze to whatever is happening in the faces of those in front of us.

Isn’t that the most eloquent, beautiful description of empathy that you’ve ever heard?
We talk a lot about the importance of empathy in patient experience work. But Alda would tell us that instead of worrying so much about how to express empathy, we should pay more attention to actually feeling empathy. Until we make that connection, the most perfectly crafted “empathy statements” will be hollow. And our communication will never be as effective as patients and family members deserve.

Stamp & Chase offers up-to-date, effective strategies for healthcare organizations to build high-performing teams and improve patient experience. To learn more about our approaches based on empathy and appreciation, send us a message or check out Burl Stamp’s book “The Healing Art of Communication”