Theater training helps doctors enhance patient care with clinical empathy skills

Research Highlights: Theater Skills Help Doctors with Bedside Manner; Findings Could Help Train Doctors in the Future; First Study to Examine the Effect of Clinical Empathy Training

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Video Clip 1:  "Physicians can use these skills to develop rapport with patients"

Audio Clip 1: .MP3 format

Video Clip 2: "A better therapeutic relationship"

Audio Clip 2: .MP3 format

Doctors taught empathy techniques by theater professors show improved bedside manner, according to a pilot study by a Virginia Commonwealth University research team.

The findings may help in the development of medical curriculum for clinical empathy training. Clinical empathy skills allow doctors to recognize a patient's emotional status and to respond to the patient's needs. Patients often identify empathy skills, such as understanding, listening and honesty, as important traits in their primary care physicians. 

Results of the VCU study, conducted by faculty members from the departments of Theatre and Internal Medicine, indicate a significant improvement in the clinical empathy skills of internal medicine residents at the VCU Medical Center following six hours of instruction with professors of theater. The study was published in the August issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Existing medical training in empathy skills is minimal, and no previous study has examined the efficacy of clinical empathy training.

"We think it's important that this study showed that there are measurable clinical empathy skills and that those skills can be taught to residents," said study co-author Alan Dow, M.D., associate director of residency training and assistant professor of internal medicine at the VCU Medical Center. "Improved empathy skills for doctors will mean that patients have better interactions with their doctors and are more satisfied with their care."

According to Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor of theater at VCU and a study co-author, clinical encounters are similar to the interactions that actors experience during performance. Members of the VCU Theatre-Medicine Team translated the skills of the stage to fit the doctor-patient dynamic, emphasizing the importance of both verbal and nonverbal cues to the study's 14 participating residents. The doctors attended lectures and workshops in which they engaged in role-playing, occasionally with acting professors playing the parts of patients.

"We were not teaching doctors to be actors," Anderson said. "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."

The VCU Theatre-Medicine Team expanded its original study earlier this year, holding classroom and workshop sessions with 33 internal medicine residents and observing the residents' interaction with patients. The team is currently analyzing the results of that study.

In addition to Dow and Anderson, the pilot study's authors include David Leong, chair of the VCU Department of Theatre, and Richard Wenzel, M.D., chair of the VCU Department of Internal Medicine.