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US Study Indicates Better Way to Care for Patients

  • Carol Pearson

In medical school, students learn how to diagnose and manage a patient's medical concerns. But non-medical issues - a patient's emotional state, caretaker responsibilities, job status or access to care can be just as important. A new study finds that medical students who are trained to ask about issues affecting patients' lives in addition to their physical problems are better able to help their patients.

Medical students often practice their health care skills on life-sized mannequins before they work with real patients. Some of these mannequins "bleed" and have heart beats. Some even "breathe."

Medical schools also help their students learn listening and communication skills. Students work with actors with specific complaints to learn to ask questions.

The training helps to reduce mistakes in diagnosing ailments. The latest study takes a more personalized approach.

Medical students are taught to ask the patient about daily activities and responsibilities so they can individualize a patient's treatment.

"Individualizing care means appreciating aspects of the patient's life," said Professor Schwartz. "We call it their context."

Professor Alan Schwartz at the University of Illinois in Chicago trained some medical students in individualizing care. The students had to listen and probe for clues that would help them with treatment plans.

Professor Schwartz and other researchers studied more than 100 medical students. Some received training on individualizing care. Others did not.

"In our group of medical students who had not received extra training, about 25 percent of them correctly managed patients who had complicating individual factors," he said. "When they had received training, two-thirds of them were able to manage those patients. This study is important because failure to take into account individual patient context can lead to medical errors that are just as bad as providing the wrong dosage or the wrong drug."

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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