For two hours on Friday afternoons, medical students from the University of Arizona College of Medicine meet at a ranch just outside of Tucson, Arizona, to learn horsemanship exercises. Through these exercises, the students also learn something even more valuable -- more effective bedside manners.
Think of it as horse whisperer meets brain surgeon, explained Allan J. Hamilton, M.D., F.A.C.S., head of the UA Department of Surgery, when describing his unique way of teaching medical students how to communicate with their patients.
Dr. Hamilton, a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon specializing in brain and spinal cord tumors, created this course to help young physicians learn how to handle difficult moments such as when a parent needs to be told their child has died, or when a patient has to be told of a bad outcome on a test.
"I am not equating patients with horses," Dr. Hamilton stressed. "However, horses can teach us a great deal about nonverbal communication that is applicable to our interactions with patients."
Communication has become an essential component to patient care, Dr. Hamilton said. How health care professionals relate to their patients is as important as the medications they prescribe and the treatments they give.
"Horsemanship requires the understanding of body language and sensitivity," he said. "There is no endeavor that will more quickly and effectively teach you awareness of your own body language and energy level than learning the principles of working with horses. You learn patience, gentleness and a method of physically relating to patients that is nonverbal, effective and powerful."
The class is an elective offered this spring by the UA College of Medicine at the Arizona Health Sciences Center, a world-renowned research center with expertise in cancer, cardiovascular disease, imaging and rheumatic diseases. The Department of Surgery is nationally recognized for its research, patient care and academic achievement.