When Julie Waterman first met Ronald Epstein, M.D., she was losing the ability to walk. She had been labeled a difficult patient by her physicians and increasingly was becoming overwhelmed by her health challenges.
“There was no immediate, miraculous diagnosis, but what Dr. Epstein gave me was respect and dedication,” says Waterman, of Pittsford. “He worked hard with me and on my behalf.”
Colleagues and patients describe Epstein as a compassionate physician, inspirational teacher, and renowned researcher who impacts health care in our community and around the world. He is the author of a book that offers an inside look into how doctors think and work. The book, titled, “Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity,” is believed to be the first written for the general public about mindfulness in medical practice.
A graduate of Wesleyan University and Harvard Medical School, Epstein, 63, completed his residency at the University of Rochester Department of Family Medicine. A longtime Rochester resident, he has remained in the area, caring for many of the same patients for close to 35 years. Epstein, who practices at Highland Family Medicine, is a University of Rochester Medical Center professor of family medicine, psychiatry, and oncology. He also sees patients on the palliative care service.
Epstein has built a worldwide reputation for physician training while teaching at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. A hallmark of his success has been to understand what makes an outstanding doctor – qualities such as self-awareness, good judgment, and communication skills – and to revamp education to include those qualities in assessments of professional competence.
In addition to his teaching and medical practice, Epstein is a well-funded researcher who focuses on doctor-patient communication, particularly in cases of advanced cancer, and how to promote mindfulness and compassion in health care.
“Some physicians have always valued the depth of listening and shared understanding, and others have practiced in a more detached, procedural and mechanical way,” Epstein says. “Medical students usually start out with a genuine interest in humanity and some are able to maintain humanistic attitudes and behaviors, whereas others lose it during training. Medical training has become more humane, in all, but the advent of electronics in the office is now a major threat to the connection between doctor and patient. The doctor-patient relationship is important to me because it improves the care for the patient, strengthens our relationship, and enriches the meaning that I derive from my work.”
Steve Goldstein, president and chief executive officer of Highland Hospital, says Epstein is a busy physician who still makes it a priority to listen and understand the concerns of his patients. Waterman, who eventually learned what was at the heart of her medical issue after switching doctors, no doubt would agree.
“Dr. Ronald Epstein is truly one of the most extraordinary physicians of this time,” she says.