NOV. 30, 2005 | At the close of his lecture to University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) physicians, staff and guests, Neal Baer, M.D., challenged the group to use their own lives to inspire social change.
Executive producer of the NBC drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and former writer and executive producer of “ER,” Baer presented the Dean’s Special Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 29 as a guest of College of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A. His speech titled “Doctors as Storytellers” was the latest offering in the lecture series, now in its 16th year.
“Dr. Baer’s passion for medical accuracy has paid dividends to the American public,” Reece said in his opening remarks. “His accomplishments and endeavors have enhanced the pursuit of medical excellence, and for this we are truly grateful.”
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Throughout the lecture, Baer emphasized the need for doctors to connect with their patients, to listen to their stories and to translate what they learn into an accurate diagnosis. He defined this type of storytelling as “private” and only to be shared among medical personnel to develop an appropriate treatment plan for each patient.
“As a medical student … I learned how important it is for doctors to get to know their patients’ stories in order to treat them with care, respect and humanity,” Baer said. “By learning a patient’s history, a doctor is able to understand his or her patients more fully and instill in them a sense of hope and security.”
Baer has used many true-to-life experiences as inspiration for the two medical dramas. Among the topics that he has explored in the programs are the shortage of organs for transplantation, the spread of sexually transmitted infections among teenagers, the rise in Type 2 diabetes in children and the inability of elderly patients to pay for medication.
Baer interspersed his lecture with television clips demonstrating the need for doctors fully to understand the medical and personal history of their patients in order to reach an accurate diagnosis. “Being a good storyteller means that you must connect with your patient, not simply view him or her as an interesting case that must be solved. Otherwise, patients will withhold facts about their lives … and you may waste precious time telling incomplete stories that may lead to wrong conclusions and possibly tragic endings,” he said.
Baer also demonstrated the power of “public” storytelling through a medium such as television. He shared the results of two studies conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Princeton Survey Research on the influence that television has on viewers’ understanding of medical topics. “I have reason to believe that the stories presented on “ER” and “Law & Order: SVU” — which are most often inspired by real, private stories — do increase public awareness,” he said.
The studies included preshow, postshow and follow-up surveys conducted to determine the effects of health-related information learned and retained by viewers of two episodes of “ER.” One brief and one longer storyline were incorporated into the episodes specifically for the purpose of the study.
Baer reported that while a majority of viewers of the shorter segment did gain knowledge, they did not retain it for the long term. However, viewers of the longer segment had a much longer retention rate for the knowledge gained.
In addition, one out of three viewers said that the information they learned from the shows helped them make decisions about their own or their families’ health care and 14 percent stated that they contacted a health care provider because of something they saw on “ER.”
“Public storytelling makes a difference. Millions have learned about medical issues through stories that have been featured on ‘ER’ and ‘SVU,’ but there are other ways we can tell our stories. It is particularly important to encourage all health care providers to think about the avenues open to them to tell their stories,” he said.