The doctor-patient relationship is one that we all face at some point in our lives. It is also one that can be challenging given the sensitive nature of the conversations, particularly if we do not understand each other. Ken Haller, professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University and A&E board member, is using theater with his medical students to improve that relationship.
“In addition to anatomy, physiology and biochemistry, we put a great deal of emphasis at SLU Medical School on nurturing mindfulness and empathy in our students as we prepare them to see patients in the real world,” Haller explained.
Part of that preparation is developing the softer skills required of being a doctor, something Haller aims to do in the Acting Like a Doctor elective he teaches with first-year medical students.
“While not that many medical students have been actors, every med student has seen actors at work and knows how powerful their work can be,” he added.
One recent class meeting began with students identifying their greatest fears in becoming doctors.
“I’m afraid of not having the answer, but that’s why my communications skills are so important,” one student explained. “I need to have the right words to comfort even if I don’t have the actions.”
This is the kernel of Haller’s class – using theatre and acting techniques like role play and improv to teach students how to empathize with their patients and their families and how to play the role of doctor even when they don’t feel like it.
“When you’re seeing patients, you have to act like a doctor even when you don’t feel like a doctor. This, of course, is what actors do: If we act like this person we are portraying, and the audience believes us in that role, we become that person,” Haller, an actor himself, explained.
The students in the elective are all in their first year of medical school, before they being patient interactions, but Cynthia Morris says the class still finds its way into her practice as a pediatric neurology resident.
“I am more comfortable standing and speaking in front of a group and I learned good ways to handle some more difficult patient scenarios, especially how to speak kindly and patiently with families who do not want things that I feel are very important for their child,” she explained.
Monica Goodland, a MD/PhD candidate at Saint Louis University, adds the elective gave her the tools she needs to understand her patients.
“If I can quickly assess that history from my patient – Do they seem guarded? Do they seem like they are not giving me the whole story? Is there someone else in the room who may be influencing the dynamic of the visit? – I can really be the physician my patient needs,” Goodland said.
As Haller explains during a recent session, the theatre elective is about more than silly role play scenarios. It is about how doctors relate to their patients and learn to trust themselves in the role of doctor so that they can think on their feet and better understand – and, ultimately, heal – their patients.