Alan Alda: Engagement is Key to Health Communication

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Photo of Alan Alda giving a lecture.
Photo Credit: PCORI

TV legend Alan Alda called on health care workers to make personal engagement with patients a priority at the 2017 Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., which took place from Oct. 31-Nov. 2.

“The way we communicate is through engagement,” said Alda, an actor best known for his role as Army Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on M*A*S*H and as the host of PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers. “And the basic element of communication is personal interaction.”

Alda said one specific experience pushed him to become an advocate for better patient engagement.

In 2003, Alda was in Chile shooting an episode of Scientific American Frontiers when he experienced painful abdominal cramps. While he tried to dismiss them at first, his stomach eventually swelled, and the pain became unbearable.

Alda was rushed to a local hospital where a physician diagnosed the TV host with a life-threatening intestinal obstruction. Either the medical team could operate on Alda immediately or fly him to a larger hospital in Santiago. But with the trip being nearly two hours in length, the physician advised Alda that he might not make it that long.  Alda decided to undergo immediate surgery and not risk the flight to a bigger facility.

The doctor carefully explained the procedure, making sure Alda understood every part of the process.

“He spoke in plain language,” Alda said at the PCORI conference. “He didn’t use a lot of doctor jargon or dismiss me.”

To the physician’s surprise, Alda commented, “Oh, you're going to do an end-to-end anastomosis.”

Alda said that he’d performed them frequently when he played an Army medic on M.A.S.H. “It was the first operation I had to perform on the show,” he told the physician.

But even if the former TV doctor hadn’t been so well-versed with the procedure, he felt in good hands with both a surgeon and nurse who took the time to explain everything to him in words any patient could understand.

Not every patient gets that kind of care, Alda said, and when a situation is confusing and scary, patients often don’t ask the questions that could better prepare them for what’s coming next.

Patient advocates are helping providers understand how key communication is to the health care process, he said. And it’s not an easy thing to do. Personal care and attention to every patient takes a lot of work.

“Real listening doesn’t take place unless you’re willing to let someone change you,” Alda said.

Motivated by his own experiences with the health care system, he started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009. The center provides training and outreach for scientists and medical professionals “hoping to improve their communication skills and connect with family, friends and colleagues to tell clear and vivid stories about their work.”

Since the organization’s founding, it has trained nearly 10,000 people by using improvisational theater exercises and message design workshops to address common pitfalls of science communication.

Alda’s keynote at the PCORI conference had a lot of people talking about their own experiences with patient-centered care. Several attendees shared their stories with Alda in a Q&A session after his talk.