Role-playing exercise helps medical students learn how to give bad news

By Carrie Johnson Weimar O'Brien • Published: May 8th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Breaking difficult news to patients and their loved ones is one of the hardest things a physician must do. But it’s also a necessary skill. And now, some medical schools are taking steps to make sure their students are properly prepared to convey bad news.

Researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of South Florida College of Medicine are studying a program in which medical students practice breaking bad medical news to actors who portray patients.

All medical students at USF are required to participate in a two-to-three hour training session where they learn how to communicate bad news. After the session, the students role-play with an actor who is trained to act the part of a patient with a particular type of cancer.

The encounters typically last about 15 minutes. At the end, each student discusses the session peers and a surgical oncologist. They review the strengths and weaknesses of the interaction and offer suggestions.

Role-playing has long been a popular method for training medical students, particularly when it comes to communication. Advocates say it helps students learn to listen to their patients, instead of merely relying on data.

At the University of South Florida, students are taught to focus on both verbal and non-verbal communication, including eye contact. They’re also taught how to deal with different reactions, such as denial or tears.

At the end of the session, students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the training method. It received an overwhelmingly positive response. Most students said the role-playing felt realistic and gave them a better idea of how to react.

That’s good news for their future patients, who will likely need all the patience and sympathy they can get at such a difficult time.