An Actors Studio for Physicians

An Actors Studio for PhysiciansAn Actors Studio for Physicians

Theater fans relish the moment when the house lights dim and the proscenium curtain goes up. Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell ’96, a theater historian and critic who currently teaches at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, developed a keen interest in the reverse: what goes on when the curtain is drawn—in a doctor’s office.

“I know exactly the moment it began,” Cheek-O’Donnell recalls. “I was at the pediatrician’s office with my daughter, and when the doctor found out I had a background in theater, he said, ‘Would you be interested in a project?’ ”

The physician had noticed that many of his peers did a dreadful job of delivering bad news to patients. It wasn’t that they lacked compassion; rather, they’d never gotten any feedback on their approach. Cheek-O’Donnell, who also had witnessed appalling bedside manners when she accompanied family members to health care appointments—doctors who avoid eye contact, neglect to sit down, or don’t give patients time to process bad news before jumping into treatment options or exiting the exam room—was intrigued. “Almost anybody can get better at bedside manner,” she says. “You just need coaching.”

Working with a colleague in the University of Utah’s medical school, Cheek-O’Donnell obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and developed a pilot study that pairs medical students with theater students to act out scenarios in which a doctor delivers bad news to a patient. The medical students were coached to focus on their breathing, posture, facial expressions, and delivery—and then were asked to repeat the encounter. “We focus less on what’s being said and more on how it’s being said,” Cheek-O’Donnell says.

The researchers video-recorded the interactions and compared them to a control group of students who got no coaching. Most students who received coaching showed a marked improvement in their performance, Cheek- O’Donnell says. Although she never anticipated developing an interest in the “theater of health,” she says seeing the real-world application of theater has been rewarding. “I’m intrigued that you can take an art form and use it to shape something like patient care,” she says.

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