Wizards Teach Medicine to Doctors

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An unlikely alliance between two famous magicians and a physician has led to a program at the McBride School of Magic in Las Vegas to help doctors improve their communication skills. Their proposal: Â?modern medicine could use a little magic.Â?

A magic school in Las Vegas may seem an unlikely place to instruct doctors on how to improve their communication skills, but two world-class magicians and an expert in Oriental medicine think otherwise. Each is convinced that modern medicine could use a little magic.

Lee Grotte, M.D, the non-magician of the trio, points out that the goal of all systems of medicine, whether ancient or modern, is to establish a good relationship between the doctor and the patient. Once this "therapeutic relationship" is established, the common goal of improving health can begin.

Grotte adds that doctors must not only have the technical skills to diagnose and treat, but also need to master communication skills to help the patient understand the doctor's viewpoint as well as how to change negative emotional habits, dietary, and exercise behaviors that contribute to disease.

"Sometimes the patient's beliefs have to change, and sometimes they just have to consider that change is possible," Grotte said. "Just accepting that they can feel better is a major achievement for some."

"To convince patients to change old and tightly held beliefs and misconceptions and habits, doctors have to be both flexible and persuasive," he added. "But, patients nowadays often question whether they can trust their doctor's advice."

Indeed, patients in the United States are less trusting of their doctors than they were even five years ago. According to a 2004 poll by the Kaiser Foundation, nearly half of all consumers worry about the safety of their health care. More than half (55 percent) also say they are dissatisfied with the overall quality of health care in this country – up from 44 percent who reported the same complaint in a survey conducted in 2000. Of those who have chronic illness, 66 percent are dissatisfied with their healthcare.

Grotte believes that poor communication skills and a habit of using fear to motivate patients is responsible for some of this situation. In addition, he believes many doctors don't even realize the negative effects that result from using fear tactics.

"It affects (doctors) also, so that we become more fearful, tense, and irritable," Grotte said. "We then fail to project the warmth and confidence that patients would like to see.

"We aren't trained as professional communicators and teachers, although this is one of our most important roles," he added. "Most training doctors receive in communication is unrealistic: we use 'simulated' patients and role-playing, or re-enactments."

He says that these experiences are not as useful as real life experience.

"Who wants to eat a meal cooked by someone whose only experience is reading cookbooks?" asks Grotte. "You want your airline pilot to have some hours in a real plane; no matter how much they have been in a simulator. Surgery is not like the computer simulations that we train with. Doctors should understand and practice the techniques proven to really motivate patients to change."

In response he has begun working with Jeff McBride and Eugene Burger, two of the faculty of the well known McBride School of Magic in Las Vegas, to offer classes for doctors. Grotte met them when they were visiting Cleveland for last year's International Brotherhood of Magicians convention.

Grotte had been exploring the interface of ritual magic and medicine in Oriental culture for many years, and wanted to compare notes with McBride, who received some of his training in Asia and also widely performs there. “Soon we were discussing techniques for establishing rapport between members of different cultures and ages as they relate to both medicine and magic. Our perspectives were very similar.”

The Dean of the Magic School also had a remarkable viewpoint to share: “On Friday night, Eugene (Burger) had given this powerful presentation on compassion, kindness, and mindfulness in magic, all subjects of great relevance to medicine, also.”

"Here were two men who had developed tremendous skill at changing people's belief systems," he said. "They could even convince people that impossible events are happening right in front of them."

Over the course of several shows and lectures, Grotte observed how well McBride and Burger perfected aspects of interpersonal psychology that are not taught in medical training. And, since they both have long experience teaching at the magic school, Grotte realized that here was a way for doctors to learn to control their body language, speech, and empathy skills to create a better effect with patients.

Many doctors do take courses in public speaking, and recent articles published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the A.M.A. News suggests that patient/physician relationships would improve if doctors took acting lessons. Grotte believes this is not so.

"Movie and stage acting is too contrived and occurs in a controlled environment," he says, "but magicians have to go right up to a person or a small group and control their attention and beliefs completely. They have to do this in real time and under realistic conditions. Skilled performers such as Jeff and Eugene can create a rapport with a stranger or a group of strangers that is exactly similar to that needed between doctors and patients. It is much more than just delivering a speech well."

Strange as it seemed, the more the three considered the similarities between magic and medicine, the more parallels they found.

"In some ways, magic and medicine are mirrors of each other," Grotte said. "The magician wants to direct attention away from the important issues, whereas the physician wants to focus the attention onto the important issues. Magic requires deception, and medicine, scrupulous honesty. But both the magician and the doctor are trying to create transformative experiences."

Consequently, McBride, Burger, and Grotte established a curriculum of performance training, interpersonal skills management, and personal discipline that they believe will assist medical professionals in having better relationships with their patients, colleagues and other members of their healthcare team. One three-day program is presently scheduled for November, 2005 in Las Vegas.

"Jeff and Eugene are highly skilled magicians, so it makes sense to use magic as the vehicle to teach these skills to doctors," Grotte said. "It makes the lessons much more entertaining and fun for the students. But most doctors will find that the real secrets behind the magic will help them to create better relationships. Once that happens, we expect that another result will be that patients understand and adhere to their treatment program better."

Jeff McBride adds, "Magic is good medicine; it can change the way the viewer feels as well as the way the performer feels. I teach students to always leave the people in a room feeling better than when they entered. Believe me, it works!"

For more information on the McBride School of Magic workshop, Magic for Medical Professionals, visit http://www.magicalwisdom.com/details.php?id=336


Lee Grotte, M.D.



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Lee Grotte, M.D.