Want Med Students to Be Better Doctors? Make Them Teach

Amelia B. Warshaw


July 27, 2018

Central Falls has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Rhode Island. Each year, through a program called "Sex Ed by Brown Med," students at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University are given the unique opportunity to teach sex education to Central Falls middle-school students. As important as the program is in improving the knowledge and health literacy of the middle-schoolers, the program also pushed me and other medical students to hone our communication and listening skills in a unique way.

"A nonjudgmental approach, a willingness to hear and answer questions, and a firm grounding in physiology are essential in teaching sex ed," Dr Virginia Sadock, director of the Human Sexuality Training Program at NYU and a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry, told me. As Sadock points out, those same skills are also essential to building effective doctor-patient relationships.

Today, medical schools confront a difficult challenge: how best to combine the teaching of hard, technical skills—measured by the MCAT and board certification examinations—while at the same time teaching the so-called soft skills that cement the doctor-patient partnership, such as empathy, listening, and attentiveness. One answer to that challenge, and a critical part of every doctor's education today, lies in developing the communication and listening skills that will allow us to bridge the gap between our medical community and the patient. As the medical world becomes more data-driven and technology-reliant while the health literacy of patients lags behind, doctors must become more effective communicators.

Learning 'Knowledgeable Empathy'

"In the sex ed program, students learn firsthand how to communicate potentially controversial or difficult information and hear people's stories," assistant professor Dr Susanna Magee, faculty advisor for "Sex Ed by Brown Med," explained to me. "Learning how to communicate is especially difficult without actually doing it. You must do it to learn it well."


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