- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2007

Paging Dr. Thespian: Please get in touch with your inner bedside manner.

The comforting demeanor of the old-fashioned physician has become so desirable that one medical center now sends its physicians to acting classes where they’re taught to read the emotions of the ailing.

“Patients have complaints they can verbalize. But there’s lots of nonverbal stuff too — their posture, tone of voice, inflections, gestures. These are things that theatrical people really know about, and a skill which can enhance clinical empathy,” said Dr. Alan Dow of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Medical Center.

Enter the VCU Theatre-Medicine Team. The group of actors, doctors and biostaticians reconfigured stage skills to suit doctors whose patients may be frightened, overwhelmed, embarrassed or combative.

“We are not teaching doctors to be actors,” said Aaron Anderson, a former stuntman turned professor of voice and movement at the school.

“But there are some elements of theater training that can be applied to medical training and can be useful for doctors trying to connect with patients,” Mr. Anderson said.

Encounters between doctor and patient are similar to interactions among actors during a performance, he said. Role-playing and other theatrical techniques can enhance a doctor’s listening skills and powers of observation.

“They learn to hone in on nuance and hidden meaning behind what the patient is saying. Improved empathy skills for doctors will mean patients have better interactions with their doctors and are more satisfied with their care,” said Dr. Dow, who directs resident training at the center.

He has a study to prove it.

So far this year, almost 50 medical residents have attended six hours of workshops and classes, polishing their bedside manner onstage among actors playing patients. Their skills were measured in real patient encounters — with a happy ending.

The doctor-thespians “demonstrated significant improvement” in every single skill level tested, the study said. It was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Other studies confirm that the touchy-feely factor is important to the unwell. A Mayo Clinic survey of 200 patients released earlier this year identified seven “ideal physician behaviors.” Above all, they want their doctors to be confident, empathetic, humane, personal, forthright, respectful and thorough.

A survey of 1,000 patients conducted in 2003 by the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners found that 97 percent said a doctor’s ability to simply listen is of “extreme” importance; another 87 percent said doctors should have to pass an exam that gauged their bedside manner. Within a year, officials began requiring graduating medical students to pass a one-day “clinical skills” exam — which includes a dozen encounters with actors mimicking sick patients.

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