Better communication, better doctors

By Alli Haltom


Evonne Kaplan-Liss, MD

It had all the appearances of an improv class. Instructors were leading nearly 60 participants in role-playing exercises involving time travelers, smart phones and the challenges of telling a story of a harrowing event in just 18 seconds.

But it was a curriculum demonstration – not an acting class – led by Evonne Kaplan-Liss, MD, Assistant Dean of Narrative Reflection and Patient Communication at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine.

The planned MD school, a candidate for accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, is the first medical school in the nation to devote a dean-level position solely to the art of communication and the development of empathetic scholars. For Dr. Kaplan-Liss, the role is a dream job and a passion project – one for which she is uniquely qualified.

She graduated with a journalism degree from Northwestern University and then worked as a producer for several nationally syndicated programs, including ABC News’ “Nightline.” She then pursued a medical career, graduating from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai while also receiving her master’s degree in public health from Columbia University.

Before joining the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, Dr. Kaplan-Liss served as the medical program director for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Sciences at Stony Brook University. She conducts workshops for medical professionals around the country and has trained more than 8,000 scientists over the last seven years.

Dr. Kaplan-Liss’ personal medical journey also has equipped her in ways a formal medical education never could.  She has battled ulcerative colitis, a disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the large intestine, for nearly her entire life.

At age 15, physicians convinced her and her family to undergo a procedure they described as “state-of-the-art.” What they didn’t tell her, Dr. Kaplan-Liss says, is that she would be the first child to ever have this surgery. Since then, she has endured 21 additional surgeries, all stemming from complications from that initial procedure.

“Words matter,” Dr. Kaplan-Liss said. “One medical term in a single moment changed the entire trajectory of my life.”

At the recent demonstration for community members and supporters of the planned MD school, Dr. Kaplan-Liss showed how her background in journalism and medicine will boost a curriculum focused on creating medical scholars who communicate effectively while demonstrating empathy and compassion.

She surveyed the room of 60 attendees, asking them about their best experiences with physicians and what specifically made those interactions memorable. Responses ranged from “He held my hand” to “I never felt rushed” to “She asked me questions.”

“Practicing good medicine is extremely important, to be sure,” Dr. Kaplan-Liss said. “But what can make or break a patient’s experience, and ultimately affects the outcome of their health, is the way a physician communicates and empathizes with them.”

Under Dr. Kaplan-Liss’ leadership, students will be trained to ask questions, practice the skill of active listening, learn to communicate clearly and concisely, find common ground with patients and use storytelling as an impactful and memorable way to teach medical concepts.

“The fact that this school has the first medical dean of communications sends a strong national message,” said Stuart Flynn, MD, the founding dean of the MD School. “We are demonstrating our commitment to developing world-class physicians who view everything through the lens of a patient. The development of these empathetic scholars has the potential to make a significant impact not only on Fort Worth, but also the health care industry as a whole.”

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