Teaching tact to doctors

Author: Tom Tiberio '05

Ruth Hillebrand found out she was dying after a physician called her Manhattan apartment late one night.

It was a rare form of cancer—mesothelioma. The disease had no treatment and no cure, the doctor told her bluntly. Then he hung up.

Unbeknownst to the physician, Hillebrand was living alone at the time with no one to talk to and no one to comfort her after receiving the news. She passed away on June 17, 1994, at age 67.

But before she died, she decided to set up a trust, the recipients of which to be designated by her brother, Joseph. Her idea was that the trust’s funds would be directed toward teaching doctors to communicate with patients in a thoughtful and sensitive manner.

Joseph Hillebrand ‘43, a retired attorney in Toledo, Ohio, now suffers from the same disease as his sister. To fulfill her wishes and honor her memory, he has chosen to establish the Hillebrand Family Program for Physician Education through the Walther Cancer Research Center at Notre Dame. The program aims to teach medical students and practicing physicians communication techniques to improve the doctor-patient relationship.

The center’s director, Rudolph Navari, M.D., ’66, who has more than 20 years experience in clinical oncology, says he and his team have developed techniques to improve doctor-patient relationships through educational intervention. Just as people can learn the anatomy of the heart or the body, he says, they can learn good interviewing techniques and how to communicate better with patients.

Through the Hillebrand Program, he says, the center will work with other schools of medicine interested in integrating this approach into their educational curriculum.

Navari says recent studies suggest that effective doctor-patient communication is an essential component of cancer care, yet most medical schools and training programs put little emphasis on communication up until five or six years ago.

“The bottom line is, patients want their doctors to talk to them,” he says.

Since it was founded in 1985, the Walther center has contributed more than $33 million to collaborative cancer research projects at Notre Dame, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and other Midwest universities and medical centers.