Theatre, Empathy, and Medical Practice
On Tuesday 11 October 2022:, we went on a Virtual Visit to Osaka, Japan. We were hosted by Dr Etsuko Nakagami-Yamaguchi (PhD, MD, Osaka Metropolitan University), Yasuko Hasegawa, a theatre designer, and Kate Beales, a theatre director, for a special Oakhill session in Osaka, Japan. We met virtually over Teams, in a session incorporating elements of theatre in conjunction with good medical practice. We began with an icebreaker activity, and then the session connected Bristol and Japan in terms of scandals in the past where the trust of patients had been violated – for example the Bristol paediatric cardiac surgery scandal (1990s) and the deaths of patients potentially due to overworked doctors in Gunma, Japan (2014).
Etsuko explained the risks of Taigan-no-kaji – a Japanese phrase meaning ‘a fire on the opposite shore’. It describes an issue that, in essence, is not your problem. In such a siloed, unempathetic way of thinking, we cannot learn from or help with the problems of others. In looking at the fire on the opposite shore, we falsely assume we are ‘safe’ from it – when in reality these issues affect us too. Empathy is critical in healthcare and beyond!
We then moved onto empathy ‘exercises’. First a simultaneous clap exercise, using drama and theatre techniques online – it was very humorous especially when our timing wasn’t going right! Following this, we role-played medical communication scenarios in pairs, forcing ourselves to take 5 seconds of silence before each person would speak. One conversation involved a doctor asking a nurse to remove a urinary catheter, modelling the typical, fast-paced conversations of the ward. Taking a few thoughtful seconds to think about how you say things felt strange, but made a world of difference.
The combination of theatre and medical practice was unfamiliar to us, and it was fascinating to see it grounded in real life examples of where medical practice can go wrong, and to see the evidence of improved patient outcomes from the theatre exercises. The Osaka hospital session was an amazing opportunity to learn from a culture different to ours, and our Japanese colleagues shared new insight into our medical practice, bringing together two unfamiliar disciplines.
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On October 19th 2022, we were invited to attend Tell Tales: An Empathy Masterclass, the product of a Student Choice Project from second-year medical students at Bristol Medical School. This project had been facilitated by Dr John Lee and community theatre specialist Kate Beales (a National Theatre learning associate), including sessions led by Nerys Pearce, a former combat paramedic and now Para-Olympian and motivational speaker (working with The Drive Project, and Professor Yamaguchi and Hasegawa-san from Osaka, Japan.
The students used theatrical and improvisational techniques, which they had been taught by Kate, to explore some key questions and issues concerning the role of empathy within the medical profession. Over the course of just 30 minutes, we were treated to a profoundly engaging and fascinating discussion of these issues and questions, incorporating dramatic performance, comedy, and interactive storytelling.
From the perspective of a fourth-year medical student, it was empowering and exciting to witness my peers understand and question the epistemic and personal nature of empathy within the medical profession. The challenge of balancing empathy as a doctor with the risk of emotional burn-out was a central issue in the students’ discussion and it is certainly a question to which we all are still attempting to find solutions and answers. To see these students, so early into their medical career, traverse this broad and complex topic with such maturity, nuance and dramatic panache was a complete pleasure.