Carry on, doctor

Students at Birmingham Medical School are receiving the best possible training for their future careers by role-playing consultations with specially trained 'actors'. 

Good communication is vital to working in the medical world and the detailed role-plays form part of the curriculum for all Medicine, Dentistry, Physician Associate, PA (anaesthesia) and Pharmacy courses. Students interact with simulated patients in an ever expanding range of scenarios. 

Dr Connie Wiskin (BA Medieval and Modern History, 1989; MPhil Drama and Theatre Arts, 1992; PhD Primary Care and General Practice, 2007), Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Interactive Studies Unit, has worked on the programme at the University since it began in 1991. 

She says: 'I think of the simulations as our equivalent to a flight simulator, each providing crucial opportunities for students to practice their responses to thousands of different scenarios. 

'The really important thing about all human simulation is that it must be authentic. We can’t set up situations that feel like they are from a soap opera.'

The first medical role-players were trained and brought into the curriculum in 1991, to help with clinical communication: situation management of patients, family members, and professional colleagues. 

With a growing remit, the team now has more than 80 staff including teaching associates for intimate examinations and Associate Clinical Educators. Staff are trained to assess students’ communication skills and to provide immediate feedback. 

'Role-playing and performance involve two very separate professional skill-sets. I know professional actors who would not necessarily work well in an educational setting, while many on our role-play team have non-performance backgrounds. What all of our "actors" bring is a credibility and authenticity to the simulations: new faces that recreate for the student that moment where the person in front of you isn’t a peer, classmate or colleague.'
Dr Connie Wisken

The simulated scenarios are pre-designed to fit certain parts of the curricula, becoming more complex as a student progresses through their degree and replicating the kind of work they would be expected to do in real life. 

Alumnus Dr Jeremy Gilmour-White (MBChB Medicine and Surgery, 2014) believes the role-plays are a great preparation for all students at the start of their careers and says: 'I want to become a surgeon and the reality is I will face times when there have been complications in the surgery. 

'I’ll have to talk it through with the patient, and if you have simulated a scenario like that before, you will be in a better position to deal with it for real.'

Jeremy feels that remembering to stay calm and not get flustered is one of the key things he learned and adds: 'The role-plays gave you the opportunity to take time and make mistakes. We would have time outs if anyone ran into trouble, and people could discuss what was happening in the situation, how it could be improved, and try out different approaches.'

It’s vital that the simulated patients play their part effectively in every role-play, to ensure the students are able to learn as much as possible from the sessions. While some of the role-play team do have professional acting experience, Connie emphasises the quality of the training they all receive as critical to their success. 

She adds: 'Role-playing and performance involve two very separate professional skill-sets. I know professional actors who would not necessarily work well in an educational setting, while many on our role-play team have non-performance backgrounds. 

'What all of our ‘actors’ bring is a credibility and authenticity to the simulations: new faces that recreate for the student that moment where the person in front of you isn’t a peer, classmate or colleague.'

Associate Clinical Educators take the role-plays a stage further, having received additional training to enable them to teach the students during sessions that include physical examinations, providing a far greater learning experience than would be possible with training dummies. 

The range and scope of the role-plays puts Birmingham at the forefront of interactive teaching in the field, but Connie still has ambitions to expand the programme further. 

'Our new Pharmacy programme, which is just coming to the end of its first cohort, represented our first opportunity to create a more joined-up programme of simulations, with patients’ stories progressing alongside the students. 

'I would find it very exciting to do something that complex and integrated across some of our larger programmes.'

Share your memories

We’d love to hear from medical, dental and pharmacy alumni about their training experiences at Birmingham Medical School. How has tuition changed since you were a student here? Email alumnicommunications@contacts.bham.ac.uk.

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