Grateful to her doctor, a patient gives $42 million

September 21, 2011

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(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Kay Bucksbaum and her husband want to promote healthy doctor-patient interactions.

Doctors and patients don’t always speak the same language. That has real consequences: poor communication is linked to worse health outcomes for a whole slew of conditions. On Thursday morning the University of Chicago is announcing the creation of an institute centered on improving the relationship between physicians and patients. It began because one couple was so moved by their doctor’s care, they wanted to nudge all of medicine toward a different way of thinking.

When Kay Bucksbaum moved to Chicago, she and her husband Matthew needed a new doctor.

A friend hooked them up with Mark Siegler at the University of Chicago, joking that the healthy couple would rarely need him.

BUCKSBAUM: As soon as we moved here, almost, my husband needed some major surgery. The attention he gave to finding an appropriate specialist for him, standing by in the operating room …

Bucksbaum says she was continually impressed by that kind of care – personal, empathetic, there was eye contact and even the occasional house call.

Siegler, who’s also a leading medical ethicist, has thought a lot about this.

He’s seen the ways a medical encounter can alienate patients, so tries to humanize the whole experience.

SIEGLER: In order to care well for a patient, you have to actually care about the patient.

That can be as simple as getting someone’s test results out quickly, or personally introducing the patient to a specialist.

Siegler says for years, medical students were taught to stay detached – to hold patients at arm’s length.

Kay Bucksbaum started thinking about ways to make inroads into that old way of thinking.

BUCKSBAUM: Why is it that students who decide to take medicine so often decide that with a lot of altruism in mind, and somehow a lot of that seems to get lost in the process?

Here’s where you need to know that Kay Bucksbaum isn’t just any patient.

Her husband Matthew was co-founder of General Growth Properties, long the nation’s second-largest shopping mall owner.

They had some money to give.

BUCKSBAUM: Well I certainly didn’t start out thinking I want to make a really big gift. What we started out thinking, though, was what we wanted to accomplish. 

The family foundation came up with $42 million

– one of the largest donations ever given to the University of Chicago.

It will fund the Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence, training doctors and med students how to better relate to their patients.

Siegler will direct it, and he says it’s not just about being nice.

SIEGLER: It’s been shown that effective doctor-patient relationships can improve outcomes in diabetes, arthritis, chronic headaches, it’s quite amazing.

WEINER: I think it’s something patients have been frustrated about for a long time.

Dr. Saul Weiner of the University of Illinois at Chicago has done extensive research on doctor-patient interactions.

He says medicine is coming around, if slowly.

WEINER: Although communication skills are now taught in medical schools, they’re taught as a set of, almost, procedures.

And there are still a lot of things that get in the way for many doctors – economic pressure, high patient loads, technology.

Mark Siegler, a senior physician at a well-heeled institution, acknowledges not all doctors have the luxury of time and resources.

But he says it doesn’t cost money to treat patients like people.

SIEGLER: It is not too much to ask doctors to communicate clearly and effectively with patients from all backgrounds and all levels of education. This can happen to anybody in any practice setting.

Through coursework, research and most of all mentoring, Siegler wants to get across that credo – caring for a patient means caring about the patient.