Cancer patients speak up

MIKE GLEASON, Staff Writer

“Effective communication is not an option,” according to clinical psychologist Bernard Bandman. “It’s a necessity.”

Bandman is one of the founders of the Bennington-headquartered Center for Communication in Medicine. The group, part of the Institute for Medical Humanism, has the mission of educating patients, families and doctors about ways to improve the communication of health information.

“It’s all about education and making informed health care decisions,” said Bandman. “The results are clear that, when patients and doctors can communicate, malpractice is lower and health care costs are reduced.”

Educational materials

The center, founded in 2006, produces educational materials and programs for doctors, patients and the public about health care communication.

Celia Bandman, Bernard Bandman’s wife and co-founder of the center, clarified the group’s mission.

“This is different from patient advocacy,” she said. “When you advocate only for the patient, you’re not serving the patient well, because you’re putting the doctor in an adversarial position.”

Bernard Bandman said that many patients have problems asking their doctors questions.

“Patients feel they don’t want to burden their doctors — they want to be good patients,” he said. “However, they also want to be heard.”

Celia Bandman said technical terms can distance patients from their doctors.

“With the language difference, (patients) don’t know what questions to ask,” she said. “They have to sort of live with a new self, and technical terms don’t speak to lived experience.”

Recently, the center worked with National Public Radio, helping to produce a show that featured three local cancer patients speaking about their experiences. Mark Burke of Bennington, Maureen Kearns of Pittsfield, Mass., and George Lewis of White Creek, N.Y., were profiled on the show, which aired in November 2006. The three found out about the center while it was running a pilot program with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

Trouble early on

Kearns said she experienced trouble early on communicating with her doctors.

“I was totally new to communicating with my doctor,” Kearns said. “In the beginning I didn’t want to bother them, but I learned that it’s important to let them know how I’m feeling.”

Kearns said working with the center helped her learn to communicate, a skill without which, she said, would have made her “a ship without a compass.”

Fewer problems

Lewis said he had fewer problems communicating with his doctors, but said he knew of many patients who had.

“For myself, the minute I knew I had cancer, I didn’t have problems getting questions answered,” Lewis said, adding that he agrees technical terms present a problem to patients. “Doctors can’t call a finger a finger, they have to call it something no one understands.”

Lewis said that the number of patients doctors see may contribute to the problem.

“When I grew up on a 100-cow farm, every cow was special,” Lewis said. “When you have a 700 to 800 cow farm, it’s just a business.”

Burke agreed that communication was a problem.

“I’ve never felt any other way than the doctor’s working for me, but a lot of people don’t feel that way,” Burke said. “It’s easy to go to a doctors office and say, ‘This guy’s going to take care of me.'”

Bandman said that these patients are part of an “underserved population.”

“People with advanced illnesses often don’t get the kind of attention they warrant because they can’t be cured,” Bandman said.

He added that having the experiences of these patients expressed seems to help other patients.

“These people think and feel out loud,” he said. “The more these things are spoken out loud, the more (other patients) feel they’ve been kind of given permission to speak with the people who care for them.”
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