11/01/2011 07:49 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2012

Physician Heal Thyself

The University of Chicago recently announced a donation of $42 million to create an institute dedicated to the improvement of doctor-patient relations. The Bucksbaum Institute for Clinical Excellence will help medical students develop compassion and empathy. It will also help them learn to listen to patients -- presumably without a stethoscope.

Yes, that's a lot of moola to teach bedside manner. But experts say the money will be well spent. According to an article in The New York Times, Dr. Laura Roberts believes the new institute will "preserve the sense of kindness in medical students before those attributes get beaten out of them during training and practice." In other words, it will prevent them from becoming lawyers.

The problem of doctor-patient relations is not new. Plato, writing about a doctor more than 25 centuries ago, noted "He gives off some empiric treatment with an air of knowledge in the brusque fashion of a dictator." Of course, Plato was also famous for living in a cave. But he still had a point. Doctors have long talked down to patients, when they have bothered to talk to them at all. So, the new Institute will definitely have its work cut out for it.

And that raises an important question: exactly how will the $42 million be spent? The article in The New York Times suggested much of it would go to developing new classes to "empower med students to be nicer to patients." Really? That seems like a waste of money. Why create new classes when a whole curriculum of tried-and-true courses already exists. It's called vet school.

Think about it. Veterinarians are always nice to their patients. And their patients never complain about doctor-patient relations. So if med students could get the same training -- problem solved.

Of course I could be completely wrong about this. Maybe vet students are just naturally nicer than med students. Maybe the vet school entrance exam tests for niceness. Maybe that's why it's harder to get into vet school than med school. Even so, I still think it's a waste of money to teach doctors to be "nicer."

I'm not a doctor (although I'd like to play one on TV), but I've got lots of experience as a patient. And I can think of many ways to spend $42 million that would improve my relations with medical professionals better than giving doctors niceness classes. Here are three.

First, buy me a doctorate from some online diploma mill. It wouldn't cost much, but it would force physicians to address me as "Doctor." That would have an immediate leveling effect in our relationship.

Second, buy me a white lab coat. It would make me look important in the waiting room.

And third, buy me some stickers and a bicycle. I'd give a sticker to a doctor every time he or she didn't make me wait past my appointment time. After the doctors collect enough stickers, they can enter their names in a drawing for the bicycle. Making them understand that my time is valuable would definitely improve my relations with physicians.

Bottom line: Niceness isn't even needed. And it never was. Plato was probably just angry that his doctor didn't make cave calls. You want bedside manner? Go to a furniture store.