Bedside manner is half art, half science — and something that some doctors believe can’t be taught. Nevertheless, Dr. Beverly Kane, at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, is trying to instill some sensitivity and compassion into med students in a novel way: By having them work with horses.
Kane has taught a class at Stanford called “Medicine and horses: A communications model for the doctor-patient relationship.” because she believes that “Human patients don’t always tell you what’s on their mind,” just like horses. “We’ve all been socialized into hiding our feelings and reactions, especially from somebody in a white coat,” she says.
Think it’s West Coast wackiness? Think again. Animals are excellent mirrors for our own behavior because they respond as much to verbal inflection and body language as they do to actual words. And as someone who has lived with animals (including horses) for most of my life, I’ve long thought learning to work with them is excellent training for learning to work with people. But I’ve also long thought that certain people “get” animals and certain people don’t.
So is it possible for medical students to learn to be aware of their tone of voice and body language in a semester-long class with horses — even if said students don’t have that intuitive ability to “relate” to animals? At first I was on the fence with this one, but after thinking about it for several days, I decided that it sure could be a good start, especially under the guidance of someone who is both a doctor and knowledgeable about horses. And for those students who already are blessed with the ability to observe — and adjust — their body language, the class could only make them better doctors.