US Doctors Turn To Horses
For Bedside Manner


TUCSON, Arizona (AFP) - A group of US medical students have traded stethoscopes for horse halters and sterile hospital hallways for dusty equine exercise pens in a bid to improve their bedside manner with human patients.
A western US ranch is the setting for an innovative University of Arizona Medical School course with the weighty title, "Medicine and Horsemanship: An Introduction to Human Nonverbal Interaction at the Bedside."
The course, the only medical-school class of its kind in the United States, is a pioneering example of sensitivity training for young doctors-to-be .
"This course is not about horses; it's about body language," said Doctor Allan Hamilton, a renowned neurosurgeon and head of the college's surgery department.
"Horses are very, very good at detecting those unspoken messages, and it's a wonderful way to teach medical students to become aware of their own body language," he said.
Because horses are vulnerable to becoming prey, they constantly scan their surroundings for potential threats and react against them, making them excellent barometers for how human movements can speak louder than words.
By learning to put the horses at ease, the medical students also find out how to respond sympathetically to emotionally charged situations, such as comforting worried patients or bereaved relatives.
"Horses are gigantic amplifiers for body language, and are extremely sensitive to it," said Hamilton.
"What we're actually doing is transmitting a true feeling in a non-verbal way. It's a wonderful, wonderful tool for teaching about bedside manner."
Each Friday, Hamilton, a graduate of the prestigious Harvard Medical School, swaps his white coat for blue jeans, a well-worn cowboy hat and boots and goes out to meet his class.
At his Rancho Bosque horse ranch outside Tucson, he leads his six-strong groups of students to his stables where, amid a strong odor of horses and hay, they learn how to treat patients by using horse psychology.
Students get up close to the horses in the training pen, but do not ride them or use saddles or bridles to control the nervous animals.
Instead, they learn and practise non-verbal clues -- such as posture, eye contact, movement or breathing -- to soothe, guide and encourage the 450 kilogram (1,000 pound) "patients" into completing simple tasks.
At first, they lead the horses by their halters, making them trot in a circle and later, additional obstacles including neon-orange traffic cones are introduced as students work to motivate the horses to negotiate the course.
Students learn that simple gestures -- such as gently patting a patient's shoulder, or sitting down in the exam room across from a patient -- sends the message that they have a genuine interest in hearing about his or her concerns, and working together to heal them.
Second-year medical student Justin Sewell was so impressed by the basic course that he signed up for the advanced horsemanship curriculum that has now been introduced following the launch of the program three years ago.
Sewell, 25, admitted he was initially attracted to the 10-week course because it sounded entertaining, but soon realized that the intensive classes forced him to analyze and change his behavior -- ranging from the speed of his movements to the tone of his voice -- towards his "patients".
Hamilton, who also helps train and rehabilitate abused horses, said he had long noted parallels between the behavior of frightened horses and that of frightened humans.
During hospital rounds, he said, groups of doctors and medical students often descend on a patient's room without knocking and immediately launch a barrage of questions about their health.
"It occurred to me that we'd never do that to a horse," Hamilton said.
"A lot of what we did with our body language with (human) patients was ... aggressive enough to put a patient into a defensive posture."
While horses have long been used to help disabled children learn confidence and independence, Lynn Thomas of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association said she had never seen them used to train doctors.
"Using horses to help (able-bodied) people learn about themselves and their nonverbal communications is a pretty new field -- but growing rapidly," she said.



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