How Alan Alda went from TV doctor to teaching real doctors about empathy

Dr. Goldman talks to Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda. While best known for his role on MASH, he's forged another career as an expert communicator, helping doctors relate better to patients. He also talks about his new podcast and his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
In this 2013 photo, actor Alan Alda poses the question, 'How do you explain colour to an 11-year-old?' as part of his efforts to improve science and medical communication. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
Listen to the full episode26:30

Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda is best known for his 11 seasons on MASH as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce. Now he's teaching health-care professionals, scientists and everyone else how to communicate better by tapping into empathy. 

Alda told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman why empathy is the secret sauce of doctor-patient relationships. To some extent, Alda said, "empathic behaviour is medicine."

In 2009, he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. The program, focusing on human connection and communication, is now being taught at 17 medical schools and universities worldwide.

As part of his workshops, Alda trained doctors and scientists how to do improv. It's not for laughs, but to teach the building blocks of empathy.

Participants carefully observe the other person, their tone of voice and body language for important cues to get inside their head.

In mirroring exercises for instance, two people mirror each other's movements exactly. In order for it to work, each person needs to learn to subtly convey movements so the partner understands and mimics the gestures instantly, without a delay or echo.  

"I have to make my movements so communicative that you can stay with me every second," Alda said​.

The Emmy Award-winning actor shared a story from a young doctor who took his course and was so struck by the mirroring exercise that he used it to help deliver the news that a patient with cancer was close to death.  

The patient had previously been told that she was going to die, but had trouble accepting the news.

'I was helping her face death and she was helping me be a better doctor'

Alda described how the young doctor connected with her in a way that his medical colleagues hadn't.

"[The doctor] went in and he sat across from her at her level. Took her hand in his hand and talked in very plain language. Didn't use the word metastasis," Alda said.

"And for the first time she reacted ... And for the first time she asked a question. He came back to us and said, 'It was just like the mirroring exercise. I was helping her face death and she was helping me be a better doctor.'"

(CBC)

From his frontline in emergency medicine, Goldman said a lack of empathy can harm not just patients, but doctors and health professionals as well.

Cast members of the television series MASH from left, are William Christopher, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell, Alan Alda, and Jamie Farr. (The Associated Press)

Goldman told Alda a story about speaking to a group of pediatricians about empathy and kindness. 

He recalled one social worker talking about working with families with newly-diagnosed autism spectrum disorder.

"She actually told me that on an average clinic day, she has to tell three families that their child has autism spectrum disorder," Goldman recalled.

"And my first thought was I couldn't do that."

"It's really a burden and it has to be dealt with. I don't think we should pile all this discomfort onto physicians and other people in health care and not give them the tools to deal with the burden," Alda said.

Alda also remembered examples from his own life when health professionals communicated effectively.

During a health crisis he experienced in Chile, a doctor leaned down, looked him in the eye and said simply "some of your intestine has gone bad, and we have to take the bad part."  

Always looking for a laugh, Alda identified the procedure as an end-to-end anastomosis, joking it was one of the first procedures he "performed" as a TV doctor.

Parkinson's not the focus of everything

Alda's latest move to the patient side of the gurney came more than three years ago when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It was only last month that he started speaking publicly about the diagnosis. 

"The main reason that I made a statement about it publicly was that … I didn't want the story to come out in a maudlin way. If somebody saw me, saw my tremor on television then somebody might write an article about isn't it sad and terrible and awful," Alda said.

"I mean it's not a good thing to have. There's no doubt about that. But there's a stigma associated with it which is not helpful to people. And that is as soon as you know you have it, as soon as you get a diagnosis that's the end of everything, and it's not."

He is hoping to hold off the progression of the disease with exercise and other non-invasive therapies.

"I feel good," he told Goldman. "My symptoms are still mild."

(CBC)

Alda said he doesn't intend to become a spokesperson for Parkinson's disease.

"I'd like it just to be a fact of my life, until it is no longer a fact of my life," he said with a slight chuckle.

"But I don't want to make it the focus of everything I do. I have other things that I'm committed to."

What's driving Alda to continue to perform and express himself?

"You know, I think it's that I'm having fun."  

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