How Podcasts Make Me an Empathetic Physician

Our guest blog post this week comes from Johan Clarke, a third year medical student at Georgetown University School of Medicine planning on going into family medicine. He is a literature and medicine track scholar undergoing research on the relationship between abject horror and medicine. He received his BA in English literature from Georgetown University. 

Like many millenials I know, I was at first skeptical of podcasts. I couldn’t imagine keeping my attention on audio alone for at least 30 minutes and expect to retain any information whatsoever. I felt like I would get bored listening to people talking and would tune out within a minute with the eventual feeling of having wasted my time. Audio was meant for music that changed constantly. My headphones were meant for enjoyment, not learning.

Like most millenials I know that listen to podcasts, they quickly became a part of my daily routine. I would listen to them on my commute, while I exercised, when I cooked dinner. My economized time as a medical student was suddenly doubled as I was able to listen to interesting stories from people I may never meet and learn incredibly entertaining facts I may never need. Now, I almost never listen to music while jogging because it bores me too quickly while podcasts keep my mind off of the physical work I put my body through for health.

Because time is so economized as a medical student, many of my colleagues listen to medically-focused podcasts. I find that I enjoy more non-medical podcasts as a way of keeping my personal life separate from my work life. There are a lot of podcasts out there for medical students that can help strengthen your knowledge about medicine or give insight into studying tips for board exams, but I sometimes don’t want to be studying. I spend so much of my waking time thinking about medicine, it is nice to listen to a podcast about architecture and design like I do with one of my favorite shows, 99% Invisible.

Podcasts have also helped me build empathy as a medical student as I get to hear stories of patients I would not otherwise have the time to hear. Medical schools want to train their students to become the best well-rounded future physicians possible, which includes creating empathetic doctors. Georgetown University School of Medicine, where I am a student, has a Literature and Medicine track where on a monthly basis we discuss typically non-medical books. Many of the conversations we have had revolved around identifying with characters. One of the main drives of the program is to create empathetic doctors and curb burnout before becoming MDs. Podcasts offer this opportunity for empathy on a concentrated and quick level, providing stories of interesting people that may never be our patients. For example, The Moth tells multiple stories over an hour of people dealing with some of the greatest and hardest moments in their lives. The huge hit S-Town was a detailed character study that built  compassion for people we may not normally provide compassion for.

While the majority of the podcasts I listen to are not healthcare-related, I do believe that there are many healthcare-related podcasts that are helpful both to the medical community and to the populations we try to treat. Reply All has a particular episode entitled ‘Blindspot’ that tells the story of a woman at the end of her rope in trying to find a diagnosis and cure for severe headaches and odd symptoms no one can explain. The episode delves into the patient’s deserved frustration with the medical field as she goes to doctor after doctor who keep giving her the same answer and never treat her symptoms. In the end, she finds an answer to her issues through an online medical forum in a place most physicians do not approve of. Only Human tells the story of a bipolar patient making the difficult decision of whether or not to stay on the lithium keeping her sane but also destroying her kidneys. Code Switch has an episode on the public health epidemic about why black women are more likely to die during childbirth and how systemic racism affects black women’s ability to get treatment. People in the medical field can get insight from the patient’s perspective and can perhaps develop some perspective to better understand the ‘difficult patient’ who is trying to advocate for themselves when no one else has.

Podcasts from a medical or scientific perspective can also be incredibly beneficial to people outside of the medical field. One of the greatest things about podcasts is their ability to democratize knowledge and to disperse information for free to as wide an audience as possible. The classic podcast Radiolab has done several scientific and medically-focused episodes, including one especially riveting story called  ‘The Fix‘, about the latest research on addiction and how we are changing our perspective on addiction medicine. Only Human is a podcast on how we relate to our bodies and the ways our bodies can go wrong. The show’s goal, like many medically-focused podcasts, is to make medicine into a narrative that can be easily understood by a wider audience. These podcasts provide information that originally only doctors were privy to. Now, this information is becoming more accessible to their patients.

One of the greatest examples of a show that makes medical knowledge more accessible is Science Vs, a show from the podcasting company Gimlet Media. This show takes a hotly debated topic in science, looks at the research behind it, and disseminates it in a way that is easily digestible and engaging to listen to. The host Wendy Zukerman takes peer-reviewed articles from scientific journals and reports the information using jokes, sound gags, and understandable language. She goes through each study systematically, explaining how one should go through an article and providing these tools for anyone who wants to engage in research on their own. She has covered  topics like obesity, chiropractors, abortion, birth control, vitamins, best turmeric supplement nz, and vaccines, and all of this information is provided for free.

I have spent a lot more time listening to podcasts recently. The podcasts I listen to are engaging, entertaining, and provide information in a way that doesn’t feel like a lecture. I have awkwardly cried in public multiple times from podcasts, most recently from an episode of Death, Sex & Money after the interviewee tells Anna Sale that her father waited to die until she was in the room because she was ‘the person that he felt comfortable dying in front of.’

I have not had much experience with death as a medical student, but I came in to work listening to an episode of Invisibilia about how we mourn on the day the first patient I was following passed away. At first I was overwhelmed by this information as I tried to process the loss of this patient I had seen each morning for the past two weeks. He had been a very difficult patient to get along with and he had spent hours talking about how nervous he was that he would not get out of the hospital. He had not been that acutely ill and his passing came as a shock to everyone on the team. I thought about how much time we had spent soothing him and telling him we think he will get out of the hospital alive. I also thought about how stressful it was starting my day talking to this extremely anxious man but in a cruel twist of fate, his worst fears had come true.

It may seem ridiculous, but that episode of Invisibilia really helped me understand this loss and cope with his passing. I had worked hard trying to create a therapeutic relationship with this man who yelled at the staff constantly. If I had not come in that day with the mindset the podcast had given me, I am not sure how I would have reacted to this news. I felt more ready to talk with this patient’s family and understand their loss as I had understood the people in this episode.

Podcasts have taught me a lot and they can help teach our patients a lot in a free and easy way. I have not tried this yet, but I believe that sharing podcasts with a patient may help bridge the gap between us and help us both see the other’s side. They have helped me build empathy for patients I had not expected to build empathy for. I believe they can provide knowledge to my anxious patients who do not know what is going on with their bodies and may not know if they are able to leave the hospital.

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