Raising the curtain on effective doctor-patient dialogue

Through theatre, UAlberta med students learn about themselves and others to communicate better with patients.

Sometimes the best way to relate to others is to walk in their shoes.

University of Alberta medical students slipped into the proverbial shoes of their patients in a theatre-based elective this past weekend that aimed to help develop empathy and improve communications skills.

"Medical students focus on foundational basic sciences and clinical reasoning and learning skills as they progress through medical school. But there's also increasing recognition that the quality of interactions between patients and health-care providers is critical to promoting health and healing," said Pamela Brett-MacLean, director of the Arts & Humanities in the Health & Medicine (AHHM) program.

"Who better to inform us about the science of human relationships and help to heighten awareness of motivations and relational responses to others than theatre artists?"

The elective, known as Communicating Care: A Theatre-Based Approach, is led by Edmonton theatre artist and educator Michele Fleiger.

During the weekend elective, students used improvisational exercises to connect with some of their underlying assumptions and values, and the ways in which those may manifest in practice. They also imagined the feelings of patients and patient family members in a variety of role-playing scenarios.

"Acting training is about becoming aware of how we channel another's ideas, thoughts and feelings through our own bodies and voices," said Fleiger. "These techniques can help students deepen their understanding of themselves so they are better able to connect with others. It's about developing empathy."

Patient care and outcomes can be affected if physicians aren't effective communicators.

According to Ottawa's Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA), communication is a common contributing factor of medical-legal cases in Canada.

"Communications challenges can develop for a number of reasons between patients and doctors," said Doug Bell, associate executive director at CMPA in Ottawa. "Hospitals are busy places with lots of people and staff, and communications can be made difficult by shift changes, emergencies and the need to constantly monitor certain patients, and when trying to communicate across multiple departments."

Fleiger said theatre is a powerful teaching tool for learning how to deliver complex and often difficult information no matter the situation or environment medical practitioners find themselves in.

Although the elective is offered for first- and second-year students, in recent years other learners have also been invited to participate.

"We had more third- and fourth-year medical students, residents and faculty who participated than ever this year," said Brett-MacLean.

The elective is one of eight offered by the AHHM program, which was noted as one of the strongest medical humanities programs in Canada in a 2015 review of Canadian medical schools published in the Journal of Pain Management.