Patient Engagement 2016
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The Curse of Knowledge in Practicing Medicine (02:37)

For many people outside the medical profession, the TV show Grey’s Anatomy serves as a major frame of reference for what it’s like to be a physician in a hospital. But for the most part, the characters display very little empathy with patients, and with each other. Dartmouth College marketing expert Punam Keller uses the show as an example of how difficult empathy can be. “It’s like you’ll do your thing, I’ll do my thing. We’ll be in the same space but we’re not listening to each other, we’re not getting each other,” she says.

Keller stresses the need for additional education on empathy in medical school, whether through roleplay, listening, or other exercises, to develop empathy and reserve judgement. For instance, Keller has paired executives with housewives and tasked them with introducing the housewives to a large group. “As far as I’m concerned, the best route to power is to empathize with your audience,” says Keller.

For anyone interested in behavior change, the psychology concept “the curse of knowledge” is very useful, adds Harvard economist David Laibson. The curse of knowledge describes the difficulty of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — someone who hasn’t had the training or advantages you’ve had. We often assume that our audience knows what we know, but they might not. “We need to be much better at putting ourselves in the mindset of people we’re trying to help,” says Laibson. “And when we put ourselves in their mindset, which is really hard, we are going to be much more effective at designing the tools they need to change their lives.”

From the NEJM Catalyst event Patient Engagement: Behavioral Strategies for Better Health at the University of Pennsylvania, February 25, 2016.

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