By Michele Willens
Do you know doctors who seem more interested in their tablets than in you? Who have their offices call you with questionable test results? Who keep you waiting way too long?
“That’s just not okay,” says Upper West Sider Dr. Jonathan LaPook, chief medical correspondent for CBS News and founder of The Empathy Project, which “brings together leaders in medicine, education, entertainment, and technology to promote empathy in medicine,” according to its website. One of the ways it does this is by producing and distributing “Hollywood-quality short films, on topics that train healthcare providers to be more humane, and empower patients to be effective participants in their own care.”
I caught up with LaPook at a recent party celebrating The Empathy Project in one of the grand towers of the Beresford, home of Bobbie Frankfort, a childhood friend, and her husband, Lew, formerly CEO of Coach. LaPook told me the Project is centered at NYU Langone Health, but its curriculum and materials will — hopefully — be used in medical centers everywhere. Raising $25 million is the ultimate goal, and the first chunk was already used to sponsor what is called an “Empathy Bootcamp” for first-year medical students.
Dr. LaPook’s definition of empathy is simple and clear: “At its core is having genuine curiosity about someone else’s lived experience, and using every ounce of communication to understand their perspective.“
It is a skill that can be learned, he says. “When I was an intern more than 40 years ago, I walked into the room of a woman who was dying from breast cancer and asked, “How are you feeling?” She became furious at me. “How do you think I’m feeling? I’m dying from cancer,” she snapped. I left the room in tears and told one of my teachers, who said, “You forgot one word — How are you feeling today — which signals, “I know you’re dying, but how can I make today better for you?” That was a master class in empathy skills, one I have never forgotten and teach to my own students.“
At its core is having genuine curiosity about someone else’s lived experience, and using every ounce of communication to understand their perspective.
The UWS event was filled with LaPook’s friends and patients: including actress Christine Baranski “I’ve never had a more handsome and caring pair of hands and such great drugs,” she said, half-kidding about a colonoscopy LaPook, a gastroenterologist, administered. Writer Delia Ephron recalled how desperate she felt when diagnosed with the same cancer that killed her sister, Nora, saying she felt “this was my destiny.” Her family and the LaPooks are longtime friends and, yes, he helped her throughout the ordeal.
“When Jon hit on the idea for The Empathy Project [10 years ago], he asked Delia to be a part of it, and she responded with a very different, and positive, version of ‘this is my destiny,” recalls the Project’s director, Maura Minsky. “She miraculously survived the brutal cancer, and now Delia wears many hats with TEP. She wrote the first film, Listening. She connects TEP with directors and writers.” (One of the films focuses on the frequent neglect of patients of color, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.)
TV producer Kory Apton says she became a believer in the LaPook “listening-more-than-talking” method while spending hours with him as they watched their young sons play baseball together years ago. She and her husband, Phil Griffin, a TV newsman (and major investor of Bodega 88 sports bar on Columbus) are loyal LaPook supporters.
Spending so many years on a dream project asks a lot, but as LaPook’s wife, Kate Lear (Norman’s daughter), says, “Ten years ago, Jon had a germ of an idea. It has been extraordinary to watch him build on this idea and gather a team of like-minded individuals who know that a communicative, empathetic doctor/patient relationship is essential for excellent medical care.” Her husband says simply, “What better gift can I leave my children and grandchildren than safe, caring medical care?”
Michele Willens is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause.