Laura James on performing medicine

Laura James A fellow medical student held onto my arm and marched me across the seminar room, first in one direction and then another. Dragged and tripped all over the place, I felt utterly out of control.

The whole thing was to be repeated again. But this time I had to imagine I had long tree roots spreading into the ground. No longer did I feel such the wanderer, but like I was grounded; my actions were my own.

No, this was not part of a self-help group for medical students, but in fact part of our medical degree, a student selected component (SSC) in “performing medicine” (Student BMJ: Medical Drama).

When I first chose the module I thought it might mean dressing up with bandages and tomato ketchup or in a long white coat and stethoscope and theatrically enacting out the patient doctor relationship in front of a large audience.

It was in fact not like that.

The SSC was about the arts and its place in health care. Sessions included workshops on body language, voice, team work, prejudices, life drawing, yoga and visits to art galleries but, of course, all were within a medical context.  

It aimed to provide an opportunity to take a step back from clinical studies and look at medicine from a different perspective. It encouraged us to focus on our views and beliefs about ourselves in relation to medical practice.

As part of the SSC voice and body language session, the tutor asked us if there was anything specific about ourselves that we would like to improve on. One by one we were asked to own up. I found this very strange as I’m used to asking the question not answering them.

Some medical students wanted to be able to speak more clearly, some asked about how to break bad news appropriately, others wanted simple advice on how to appear confident in stressful situations, such as in OSCE’s (Objective Structured Clinical Examination) or in my case wanting to be able to keep calm, competent and confident in stressful situations like when my medical knowledge was tested on the ward.

Back to the tree roots exercise. This was one of many creative ways to make ourselves feel calm and in control of our body and mind. The theory goes that if you focus on yourself first, your space, your environment and situation and then focus on what you need to communicate, things can go a great deal smoother.

For example, on a recent hospital attachment, our teaching consultant was endlessly abrupt, unimpressed and unforgiving of any misunderstandings. He was no demon headmaster, but enough to cause a feeling of discouragement from asking too many questions in fear of seeming incredibly stupid and ignorant. But the tree roots exercise came rushing back to me. I put it into context, I thought about the situation.

Perhaps he was just as terrified of medical students as we were of him? Perhaps he feared we saw him as a bad teacher, or a boring old consultant? Or perhaps he was just fed up with medical students asking silly questions, who knows? But I stuck to my (tree) roots and decided not to judge, asked everything I wanted to know and answered all that I knew, without a doubt in mind. It turned out to be a very pleasant tutorial session. It could have been because he was in a good mood that day, but I think it was because I added a bit of “performance” to medicine.

Laura James is a fourth year medical student at King’s College London.