Benefactor Gives U of Chicago $42 Million to Work on Bedside Manner

PHOTO: The Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation is giving $42 million to the University of Chicago to create the Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence.
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A benefactor who believes doctors need to work on their bedside manner is giving $42 million to the University of Chicago Medical Center to train physicians to be good communicators.

The donation from Carolyn "Kay" Bucksbaum and her husband, Matthew, will create the Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence, the medical center announced today.

Kay Bucksbaum, whose husband made his fortune developing shopping centers, said she was inspired by Dr. Mark Siegler, a leading medical ethicist at the University of Chicago who became the couple's internist when they moved to Chicago from Iowa about 10 years ago.

"He keeps front and center getting to know his patient," she said.

In contrast, she recalled a doctor years ago who didn't listen to her when she told him what she thought was wrong with her -- and didn't apologize when she turned out to be right.

When her husband needed surgery, she said, Siegler "took my husband by the hand to meet the surgeon, introduced him, and told the surgeon something about my husband."

He even scrubs up and watches his patients' surgeries when he can, she said. And he encourages patients to call him "Mark."

That kind of emphasis on bedside manner and developing a relationship with the patient is being eroded in modern medicine, said Dr. Matthew Sorrentino, a cardiologist who is co-director of the new center.

"The way I was taught, you sit down and look directly at the patient," he said.

That communication is crucial for good diagnosis, Sorrentino said.

"If you listen carefully to the patient, 95 percent of the time people will tell you what's wrong."

Preliminary data show that good doctor-patient relationships can improve patients' health and well-being, he said.

Nowadays, he added, doctors are doing less looking at and listening to their patients.

"Medicine has become much more technology driven," he said. "Everything's become electronic these days. We start looking at computer screens and less at the patient."

Even the little things matter, Sorrentino said, such as avoiding using a patient's first name while they call you "doctor."

"I always address them by their title unless they tell me differently," he said.

The new center has designated three second-year students as the first Bucksbaum fellows and anticipates supporting up to 15 such fellows by its third year of operation. It will recruit "master clinicians" to be role models for developing top-notch patient communication skills.

Kay Bucksbaum believes many students entering medical school today are altruistic and motivated by idealism.

"By the time they're into practice, that feeling seems to have gotten beaten out of them," she said. "It's not just the education beating it out of them, it's the red tape, the bookkeeping."

But in spite of those pressures, she said, some doctors manage to retain their humanity and rapport with patients. If the Bucksbaum Institute can teach young doctors how to achieve that balance, she added, then the $42 million will be "money well spent."

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