Some of us are lucky enough to experience it—a friendship that starts in college and endures for a lifetime. It happened to Lawren Daltroy (at left in photo) and Charles Derrow (at right) , two Michigan undergrads who met in the fall of 1967 as freshmen in West Quad. Although virtually polar opposites in personality—Derrow describes his own style as “crash and burn” while Daltroy was “quiet and compromising”—the two men quickly bonded over intellectual interests and a love of music. One of their first joint undertakings was to come up with the funds to buy a decent piano for the dormitory lounge.
“It took me a few days to figure out who he was, but that was all,” Derrow remembers. He lists some of Daltroy’s qualities: “Principled, kind, good at many things, courteous, soft-spoken, empathetic.”
Daltroy majored in history and Derrow in anthropology: both eventually became health professionals. Derrow attended medical school at Ohio University and established a clinical practice in Ohio. Daltroy earned his MPH at Michigan and then went on to gain a doctorate in public health at Johns Hopkins University. He was recruited by Harvard University a few years later, and directed research in arthritis at Brigham and Women’s Hospital while simultaneously holding professorships at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. Daltroy was internationally recognized for his groundbreaking research on health education and his untiring efforts to improve patient-provider communication.
“His real joy was the individual patient, the individual provider,” Derrow says. “Because everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong [in health care] happens in the interview between doctor and patient.”
Daltroy recognized from the start that doctor-patient communication profoundly affected every aspect of health care, from accurate diagnosis of an ailment, to the patient’s compliance with treatment, to overall health outcome. At his first hospital job he developed patient education programs for patients with various ailments, only to realize that every time he moved to another unit “you had to convince the doctors all over again that what you were doing was important,” as he said in a taped 2003 interview. He maintained an unswerving belief in doctor-patient communication throughout his career, researching how standard clinical procedures can impede the process, and offering meticulously researched tactics for doctors to improve their relations with patients. Over and over again, Daltroy explored this core concern in different ways. At the time of his death from cancer at age 54, he was looking at the ways functional illiteracy can impede a patient’s ability to get good health care.
Now a scholarship established by Derrow carries on the legacy of his friend. The Lawren H. Daltroy Memorial is a fund specifically designated for doctoral students focusing on provider/patient communication.
Derrow credits Daltroy with teaching him the importance of listening to his patients. The scholarship “is a penance for me,” he says wryly, acknowledging he himself often came up short in that area. It also explicitly conforms to Daltroy’s wishes, says Derrow, who discussed the legacy beforehand with his friend.
“He told me exactly what to do; I got it right from his mouth,” says Derrow. “He gave me very strict parameters, and the parameters were this was not to be a large-scale thing, it was to be the individual patient and the individual provider…It’s just that simple.”
A scholarship in Daltroy’s name, intended to improve practice in the field of patient-clinician communication, was established after his death at the American College of Rheumatology in Atlanta. But Derrow felt it was important to establish a scholarship specifically at the alma mater he and Daltroy shared.
“My awakening as an intellectual is in great measure a result of my undergraduate education at Michigan. I don’t believe I could have had a better college experience,” says Derrow, who also has funded an anthropology scholarship at Michigan. “Every door that I started to walk through opened [at Michigan]. I was exposed to all kinds of people… and I was exposed to all kinds of ideas. I owe a great debt to Michigan. All of my children are alums, and my grandchildren will be.”
Most health-care institutions, the UM School of Public Health among them, train students in listening techniques as part of their education, but it is still often given short shrift. Derrow says he hopes that the Lawren Daltroy Memorial Fund will focus and improve the effort. “You need to do it over and over again, you need to practice it, because no patient is the same as another. You have to be nimble to get somebody to understand you.”