James Poskett: Storytelling in the theatre

Telling the Patient’s Story details a theatre company’s attempts to develop medical students’ case presentation skills. Workshops, covering everything from improvisation, personal monologues and body language, had a marked effect on the students, with all participants agreeing that the training improved their delivery of patient histories.

http://mh.bmj.com/content/37/1/18.abstract

So, the arts and humanities can help medical students improve their case presentation skills thereby, in theory, benefitting future patients. Sounds like convincing evidence of the value of the humanities within the medical curriculum. Everyone happy? Well, not quite. One student offered the following feedback:

“[There is] too much focus on how this relates to medicine. We will realise that later.”

The authors use this question to ask their own: why did those involved in organising the workshops feel the need to emphasise the importance of the arts in relation to medicine? Why not, as the student suggests, let them ‘realise it later’? The authors go on to note that despite the growing inclusion of the arts and humanities within medical education CP Snow’s infamous ‘Two Cultures’, in which the humanities and sciences are juxtaposed, appears ever-present. From the perspective of one participant, this need for affirmation was both intrusive and unwelcome.

Perhaps the student really does offer the best advice then? For the humanities to flourish, they need the confidence to engage with medicine, both in theatre workshops and wider activities such as art, poetry, history and literature, without constant reference to their own worth. Telling the Patient’s Story provides educators with an opportunity to question the merits, or otherwise, of emphasising the (medical) value of the humanities. As the authors suggest:

“The gel between the ‘Two Cultures’ may not need to be overtly applied. Learners should find the skill of storytelling of great utility all on its own, and discover the bridges as they must.”