By John Easton

We decided to support a program that would, over time, teach many physicians the best ways to communicate”
—Carolyn "Kay" Bucksbaum

The Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Family Foundation is giving $42 million to the University of Chicago to create the Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence, a unique initiative that will focus on how to improve doctor-patient interaction.

“This generous gift offers the opportunity to bring a new level of rigor to the study of the doctor-patient relationship and clinical judgment,” says Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago. “The Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence provides an important complement to the biological research and clinical strengths of this institution.”

The Bucksbaum Institute will support the career development and activities of physicians at three career stages—as medical students, junior faculty, and senior clinicians. These physicians will devote themselves to improving doctor-patient communication and clinical decision-making. The goal is to enhance the skills of physicians as advisers, counselors, and navigators to help patients make informed decisions when facing complex treatment choices.

The Bucksbaum Institute, under the direction of Mark Siegler, the Lindy Bergman Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine, will train medical students and faculty who, in turn, can serve as role models in communication and shared decision-making.

“Our doctor, Mark Siegler, showed us what good doctoring involved, and it was just as much about compassion and communication as his outstanding clinical competence,” says Carolyn “Kay” Bucksbaum. “We decided to support a program that would, over time, teach many physicians the best ways to communicate and export those role-model doctors to other medical schools and communities, where they could carry on the process of superb patient care.”

Research shows need for better medical communication

The need for better communication between physicians and patients is well-documented. A 2001 survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that doctor-patient communication often fell short. One in 5 American adults had trouble communicating with their doctors, and 1 in 10 felt they had been treated disrespectfully during a recent health care visit.

“These generous donors have pinpointed a fundamental aspect of medical practice that deserves greater attention,” says Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. “They are giving us the resources to concentrate on training physicians who not only possess extraordinary technical knowledge, but can work effectively with patients to reach the best clinical decisions.”

Holly Humphrey, dean for Medical Education at the University of Chicago, believes the impact of the Bucksbaum gift will be felt for decades: “This is a transformative gift, the kind that has an impact sustained over generations. The magnitude and the sharp focus of the Bucksbaum Institute will permeate the institution, emphasize the fundamental principles of good clinical care, and help physicians connect with patients and their families during their most vulnerable moments.”

The gift, one of the largest donations pledged to the University of Chicago Medical Center, was inspired by a doctor-patient relationship.

“In Dr. Siegler,” Kay Bucksbaum says, “I have had a doctor who is interested in my husband and me as persons, not just diseases—although we’ve confronted him with a few of them. I have so valued that. A special mark of Dr. Siegler’s character is his extreme kindness and interest in what makes us tick.”

Respect and trust enhance medical care

Siegler believes that kind of attention can foster communication with patients.

“Doctors and patients ought to feel confidence, respect, and trust in each other,” he says. “Good patient care begins with clinical competence, but it combines technical skills and clinical judgment with close attention to the patient’s individual values and needs. The doctor-patient relationship relies on communication, discussion, and negotiation. They work together to search for the best decision for the patient.”

Kay Bucksbaum hopes the Bucksbaum Institute will become a clinical and teaching model nationwide and be emulated at other academic medical centers.

“My own children and grandchildren may be able to enjoy the same kind of excellent medical help that we have had because of what we are doing,” she says. “My goal is not just for my grandchildren, but for large numbers of people.”