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Epstein Awarded American Cancer Society Clinical Research Professorship

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Ronald M. Epstein, M.D.
Ronald M. Epstein, M.D.

Ronald M. Epstein, M.D., professor of Family Medicine, Psychiatry, Oncology and Medicine (Palliative Care), has received the American Cancer Society’s most prestigious award, the Clinical Research Professorship, to continue his studies of doctor-patient communication. ACS awards only two of these professorships each year. These grants to mid-career professionals provide up to $80,000 a year for five years and are renewable once.

Epstein, who directs the Center for Communication and Disparities Research, has focused on conversations between doctors and patients who have advanced, incurable cancer and the differences in their understanding of prognosis. His prior studies have shown that despite efforts by doctors and patients to improve communication, some patients will still believe that their cancers are curable, and a majority will have unrealistic beliefs about how long they will survive.

“The consequences are large,” Epstein says. “Patients get treatments they later regret. Families feel upset and abandoned. For doctors, these conversations are difficult too.”

Epstein’s goal is to improve communication between patients and doctors so that they can achieve shared understanding and expectations about prognosis and care so that patients can make informed choices that maximize their quality of life.

With the ACS award, which begins July 1, Epstein will broaden this research to learn more about who patients turn to after learning of their prognosis, including family, friends, clergy and others. He will also continue to study mindfulness — being conscious and aware of one’s own feelings, thoughts and reactions — as a strategy for patients and doctors to improve their communication, especially regarding difficult topics like prognosis.

In addition, he is partnering with M. Ehsan Hoque, Ph.D., assistant professor of Computer Science, to incorporate machine learning into data analysis and communication coaching for doctors and patients. With Hoque, who leads the Rochester Human-Computer Interaction Group, Epstein will explore the use of avatars that can read facial expressions and other emotional cues to help patients and physicians practice for important conversations. The avatars are intended to augment, rather than substitute for, in-person practice, Epstein says.

“I am passionate about helping patients and families navigate some of the most difficult moments of their lives and helping clinicians be mindful, attentive and present for patients in times of need,” Epstein says.

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