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Developing a Bedside Manner at the Ranch

Chelsea Rice, for HealthLeaders Media, February 13, 2014
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This article appears in the January/February issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Putting a patient at ease can be challenging. Now imagine that patient is 1,000 pounds and can run up to 20 mph. Allan Hamilton, MD, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Arizona, teaches his students bedside manner through interaction with horses at his ranch as part of the university's From Barnyard to Bedside program. Hamilton also founded an equine assisted therapy program at his Rancho Bosque, where patients can work with horses to assist in their healing.

On shaping the goal: You have to be mindful of your emotional and energetic state to work with patients and horses. Your body language says everything. Often physicians aren't aware of the signals they're sending patients. A horse and a patient work off your energy and intuition. The point at which the horse works for you occurs because you've effectively shaped the goal. You can see it happening in the horse in front of your eyes. It's just this quiet confidence that I can talk this creature through something scary. I've got to be able to talk patients through a surgery, and they have to trust me with each step.

On spirituality: By definition medical illnesses put us in crises, but they also put us in that place in life where we're asking for help and aligning our priorities. That aspect of medicine always has a spiritual component for the patients. But it has to have a spiritual component for medical practitioners, too. You're reaching out to something bigger than yourself. You see medicine in the bigger context: that I'm being of service to my fellow human beings.

On the story at the bedside: Truth is always at the patient's bedside. If you wait long enough and let them talk long enough, the patient will guide you and give you all the clues you need. It drives my residents crazy because they want to show me the scan first. I like to call it a bedtime story. When I go to the bedside, I want to hear the bedtime story. Once you learn to let patients tell their stories, it's amazing how fun medicine is, and you realize medicine is about being a good listener.  
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This article appears in the January/February issue of HealthLeaders magazine.


Chelsea Rice is an associate editor for HealthLeaders Media.
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