Doctors Study Magic to Transform Fear into Confidence

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Aside from pain, fear is one of the most important concerns for patients, according to Lee Grotte, M.D. "I believe that creating confidence is the primary method for overcoming fear." Magicians must also create confidence in themselves and their audience. Grotte and master magician Jeff McBride will share their skills with doctors in a first of its kind workshop at McBride's Las Vegas magic school in November.

Jeff McBride stops in the middle of his full stage show at the Palace Theater in Cleveland, where Houdini performed 80 years ago. He steps off stage into the audience and moves from person to person, pausing periodically to offer a mystical test with a silvery vessel and the familiar wand of his craft. It is clear by his reaction that the first few candidates do not pass.

The Magician's brow darkens as each candidate fails. Then, after approaching a small child and offering the test, McBride beams as the child succeeds. He takes the child by the hand and walks to the stage, where he will carry the audience into a symbolic interlude of magical initiation.

In essence, McBride chooses a youngster from the audience and makes them the star, transferring his magical abilities to the youngster. Unlike some magicians who use audience assistants as the object of a joke to achieve a laugh, McBride skillfully elicits the child's natural ability. The result is a series of comic scenarios and puzzling magical effects.

He is even able to leave the child on the stage alone for a period. When the interlude concludes, McBride ritually admits the newcomer to the secretive society of magicians, with the audience as appreciative witnesses.

How does McBride overcome the natural fears of a young volunteer to step before hundreds of strangers? “It isn't even an issue,” he responds. “With magic, I can take a child to a place where there is no fear.”

Perhaps modesty prevents McBride from revealing the real secret of his skill, suggests Lee Grotte, M.D., who was watching from the audience that night and has collaborated with Mr. McBride and Eugene Burger, the Dean of the McBride School of Magic in Las Vegas, to create a workshop teaching magic to doctors.

“Jeff has mastered many of the aspects of interpersonal psychology that make rapport possible. He shares his confidence with his young assistant, and this allows an inexperienced child to literally take center stage in a major production. It is an amazing demonstration of the power of a relationship to transform a potentially scary situation into one of delight and opportunity.”

“Consider how these same skills might be used to assist doctors in establishing trust with their patients, whether they are children or adults.” says Grotte.

Fearfulness has become so pervasive in our society that Grotte believes radical steps are necessary. “There is a constant drumbeat of alarm that emanates from the media, from the government, and even from the medical profession.” he says, “Too many doctors use fear to try to motivate patients to make change, and this is counterproductive. We need to find new ways to establish trust between ourselves and patients, not build a wall of fright.”

Recent studies suggest support for Grotte's position. A 2004 Kaiser Foundation poll suggests that nearly half of patients already fear for their safety in our present health system.

Dissatisfaction with medical care has actually increased since the last poll in 2000. And, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on June 1st, 2005, fear was cited as a reason for practicing poor quality medicine.

According to Peter Budetti, M.D., J.D., of the University of Oklahoma, fear caused an astonishing 93 percent of doctors in this study to “acknowledge they did things they themselves regard as deviating from sound medical practice”.

“Pain and other symptoms of disease can be very frightening, as can the realities of treatment.” says Grotte, “Fear creates physiologic changes which interfere with the healing process, so if we can reduce a patient's fear, that is a major accomplishment.”

Grotte also points out that fear often leads to anger, which is just as dangerous to health. “The anger that results from fear can cause the patient to lash out at caregivers or become uncooperative with treatment.”

“All medical systems are based on establishing the unique alliance that we term the 'therapeutic relationship'” Grotte says, “Jeff has a vision for the role of the doctor that has much in common to that of the traditional tribal magician role, and it is this role that is at the base of all medical systems, including the Greek and Middle Eastern origins of our own.”

Grotte is convinced that training at Jeff McBride's magic school will help physicians establish more positive and successful relationships with patients.

In the process they will overcome their own fears, just as McBride has: “Last January I traveled to the island of Bali to co-host a television show. The producer wanted me to create an escape stunt where I was surrounded by burning wood with 20 foot tall flames. The fire was no illusion and I had to literally “face the fire”; it was escape, or die.”

“We had only one day of rehearsal. The challenge was to communicate calmness in the face of fear. My training as a performer helped me focus my mind, body, and communication skills, so I was able to give the technical crew an extraordinary amount of information in an orderly fashion.”

McBride sees similarities between his situation and that of doctors. “Like doctors, magicians have to edit their own speech. At the magic school we teach the speech and body language skills that lead to clearer communication between two people, or even in small groups.”

A surgeon who has been a student at the magic school, Jason Zommick, M.D., has seen changes in his own practice as a result: “Discussions with my patients regarding a procedure or the pathophysiology of a disease have greatly improved since becoming more involved with magic. I've learned to simplify my explanations and become more precise, just as I do when I'm performing a magic trick.”

McBride realizes that many physicians may not choose to use magic effects with patients, but aside from the rapport skills he plans to teach, learning a few magic effects might still come in handy. As Dr. Zommick says, “I've been able to bring a smile to my post operative hospital patients, some entertainment to overworked nurses, and a bit of humor to stressed doctors.”

Grotte agrees. “Whether or not you perform magic, or are a specialist or primary care doctor, a great deal can be learned from gifted magicians like Jeff McBride and Eugene Burger."

"Is it possible to find solutions to problems of 21st century medicine in methods that may date back to the Greek mystery medical schools? Jeff McBride is one magician who has moved beyond trickery and the limits of stagecraft to explore the interface of magic and medicine.”

The Magic for Medical Professionals workshop will be offered at the McBride School of Magic in Las Vegas from November 4 to 6. Details may be found by examining the schedule at


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Lee Grotte, M.D.
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