AAMC 2014: Alan Alda Shares Knowledge of Communication with those who have the Knowledge to Fix Health Care

Nov 9, 2014 8:30 AM

Communication is the process of replacing beliefs with information. 

If we are to be successful fixing healthcare, those who have the knowledge of how to do it must learn how to communicate more effectively. 

So says Alan Alda, aka Hawkeye Pierce, co-founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Alda was the plenary speaker who set the tone for the Association of American Medical College’s Annual Meeting in Chicago, Saturday, Nov. 8. 

The greatest tool available to humankind is not innovation — from fire to flint to lighter — he went on to indicate. Our greatest tool is the power of socialization, the ability to share ideas and knowledge with one another, and from there innovate and improve every aspect of our lives. 

Rather than offer a series of tips about how to communicate better with one another, Alda used one of the oldest tricks in the book: a story. 

According to Aristotle, Alda pointed out, a story occurs when something happens to someone. However, unless a story has an emotional connection and is dramatic — someone trying to accomplish something, with high stakes and obstacles getting in the way — knowledge is rarely internalized. 

This is the challenge of communicating science. 

“We must tell the real stories in science,” said Alda. “To share with others our passion, that we are real people searching for understanding. When scientists communicate, they leave out the blind allies they’ve gone down. Science is like a great detective story in which the audience is hoping for the discoveries to be found.” 

Alda masterfully expounded on the power of story to invest a listener in gaining an understanding of the human condition. Tapping into one of the most basic of human emotions, Alda likened the challenge of communicating science to being in love. 

“Our job is to get the world to go on a blind date with science,” he said. “First, we must get the world attracted to science. Then, we hope this attraction leads to infatuation—so the world thinks about our science even when they are separated from it. Finally, we must get the world to commit.” 

Although he does not subscribe to the stereotype that scientists do what they do because they are not natural communicators, Alda challenged the audience to do more with the knowledge they hold. As the stewards of this knowledge, scientists must understand what he referred to as the theory of mind. 

“If you are explaining something to someone, and they do not understand, it’s not because they are ‘ignorant,’ it’s because you are not explaining it clearly enough.” Alda continued, “The curse of knowledge is that you hold the information in your head and think that if you know it, everyone else must. You have to clear away the jargon and illustrate concepts in a way that your audience will understand what is in it for them.” 

He demonstrated this concept through audience participation. An audience member was brought to the stage and asked to attempt to tap out the melody of a song from a cue card only she could see. The only note she could play was with her fist on the podium. Of the 2,800 people in the audience, only a handful recognized the song. 

Alda explained this as an example of the curse of knowledge. “We have the melody in our heads, but all the audience hears is your knocking on wood.” 

He suggested that this is an example of what happens when one has too much information to share, and either doesn’t share enough or shares too much. 

“Don’t tell everyone everything. They won’t get it. Your job is to inspire people to learn more. Give them just enough to be hungry for more knowledge,” he said. 

From a public health perspective, this means that doctors must improve the way they communicate with both each other and with patients. Alda illustrated this point with two stories. In the first, he recounted in great detail a moment that changed his life. On top of a mountain in Chile he experienced a great abdominal pain. After overcoming some challenging obstacles his ambulance arrived at the hospital. The doctor examined him and reported his findings. Leaning in to be within view of Alda’s morphine induced eyesight, the physician explained what was happening. 

“Part of your colon has gone bad. We have to cut the bad part out and reconnect the two good parts to each other,” the doctor explained simply. 

“You mean you have to do a bowel resection,” Alda countered, having performed dozens on the TV show MASH. 

In another instance he described the defensive response he got from a dental surgeon after readmission for a procedure that left him unable to smile.

Alda illustrated the three key elements of communication between doctors and patients: empathy, clarity and personal accountability. These standards, he explained, are not expressed best with language. Body language and intonation are more effective tools of communication, and doctors must learn to master them. 

In all, Alda’s message to those with the knowledge of how to fix healthcare: communication is key. He reminded them that they have to develop the skills necessary to communicate, so that they can share as much knowledge with one another as is necessary to innovate even further.

By: Joe Borgenicht

Joe Borgenicht is a director of special initiatives and projects.