Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teaching Communication Skills

It's a month since I've last posted on my blog and I am not quite sure why. I've thought about many things and wanted to write about them but I kept thinking that I had to look something more up before I could put fingers to keyboard. And while I do think it would be wonderful if I did have the time to research everything I write and place it within a context, I also think it is good to just get on with sharing reflections on work.

So, I spent this afternoon teaching a 'breaking bad news' session to 3rd year medical students. Our course is undergarduate so these students are in their early 20s. The session is 3 hours long, with 5 students, me and 5 standardized patients(actors) who cycle through the rooms and are with us for about 15-20 minutes.

This is the third of 3 communication skills in 3rd year. I was stepping in for another tutor so had not met the students before and they had bonded quite a lot together as they had been on many placements together not just this class. They were even going out to a pub quiz together.

I want to tell about two of the scenarios we discussed. No. 2 patient/actor has to be told that his long-waited for operation had been cancelled due to emergency admissions. The student psyched herself up because she and the other students had heard on the grapevine that this scenario was particularly confrontational. The others joked that if any of them could cope with this angry man then she could. And so the metaphor of battle for this consultation was set, and it continued throughout. It really did feel that they were on two opposing sides rather than her being there to support the patient. I know from talking to these students that they care deeply about patients, but in this scenario the 'game' of sparring with this actor was too strong. It had been mythologised by previous students and there was little chance for this student to come to it with her own angle. It made me think (again) about who un-natural communication skills teaching can be. I was a bit shocked when I came across this book chapter yesterday.... our exams deconstructed! And I realised that our teaching sessions can be too predictable for students as well. When he had finished acting our actor told how his real-life wife has had an operation cancelled three times in the last month. On the second occasion she had got as far as changing into her gown when she got news it was off. But the news came from the surgeon who left the theatre and came down to sit beside her bed and apologise. It was this story which made the scenario seem real for the students and they thought that perhaps the wrong approach had been taken by their colleague initially. The example of the surgeon who sat alongside his patient, rather than on the other side of the battle lines made sense to them.

We were recovering from this encounter when our next actor/patient arrived. This involved a patient returning for the results of her chest x-ray. It showed an opacity and she was to be referred urgently for a CT scan and to a chest clinic for assessment. She had a high chance of having a lung cancer. I quickly checked with the student if she was prepared as she thought she was going to have another scenario. She made an aside comment about the patient probably going to start crying and I wondered if she was in the right place. I asked her again if she knew what she was going to say and she said yes. The actor/patient was rapping on the door so we moved on. It quickly emerged, to me,that the student after talking about 'shadows' on the scan and the fact that this could mean many things.... but possibly something 'serious', was not going to discuss the possibility of cancer with the patient.

I called time out and asked the student if this was the case. She said it was and said that if the patient asked she would tell them but not otherwise. I said that I didn't think this was the best approach, but the other students said that they thought she was right. It wasn't fair to burden the patient with the possible cancer diagnosis if she didn't want to know. And we had to presume that she didn't want to know if she didn't ask. So they resumed the consultation, and it finished without the patient ever knowing that she was being referred because she might have cancer.

Afterwards the student said that she thought it was the job of the chest clinic to inform her about the possible cancer diagnosis or the actual cancer diagnosis. At the time I was quite strident in my opinion that the patient should have been informed but the students were still not coming round. One did, but just the one.

The next scenario helped us as it was about a young woman presenting with a breast lump. This student mentioned the possibility of breast cancer within her first few sentences. The consultation ran smoothly. The actor shared in the feedback that she felt it was unfair to expect the patient to raise the possibility of cancer and that it was good to get it out in the open. She called it the elephant in the room. We all laughed and told her about our debate with the previous scenario. Some of the others now also started to agree that if the patient was being referred because of the risk of cancer then it was important that they should know and that it was not fair to leave the responsibility of asking to the patients. By the end of the afternoon they all seemed to agree on this.

I framed it in the context of 'informed consent'. Could the patient really give consent to the tests they were to undergo if they didn't know what they were actually checking for?

But I recieved today "The Logic of Care" by Annemarie Mols. I haven't read it yet but I wonder if I will be so sure that I am right when I finish. She compares the logic of choice, which she says is becoming dominant in western healthcare, with the logic of care. Were the students being more caring in wanting to give a woman who has a probable cancer diagnosis her last two weeks without having had cancer overtly referred to, than I with my thoughts of empowering the patient through information? I don't know.

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