Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Learning to talk with seriously ill patients

A partnership between Monash Rural Health and Gippsland Region Palliative Care Consortium is teaching local medical students critical communication skills for dealing with palliative care patients. The two local organisations have come together in recent years to share the facilitation of annual workshops for Monash University year 4C medical students on GP placement in West and South Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley.

Communication skills: the joint workshops teach students how to communication with patients in palliative care.
Dr Cathy Haigh, Deputy Director and Year 4C Academic Coordinator at MRH Latrobe Valley and West Gippsland, said the partnership between MRH and the GRPCC had been fostered through sharing space alongside one another in cottages on the West Gippsland Hospital grounds. “Then, when funds became available several years ago, the consortium was proactive in initiating the idea of a communication skills workshop for our students and we were very open to the idea,” she said.

The workshops include talks by palliative care experts from Melbourne who inform students about appropriate ways to manage the impacts of palliative care drugs, for example. Another key part of the learning is centred on teaching students to effectively and empathetically manage and respond to patients across a range of scenarios involving the personal and psychological impacts of their situations. Led by local psychologist Dr John Reeves, West Gippsland Palliative Care Consortium nurse Anny Byrne and professional actress Veronica Pocaro, who plays the role of a patient, this component of the workshop is particularly welcomed by students.

Dr Paul Brougham, Head of General Practice with Monash Rural Health Latrobe Valley & West Gippsland, said the workshops were “as much about communication skills as they are about palliative care”.  He said they had been instrumental in helping students to develop critical communication skills in a safe environment. “Within this environment, it doesn’t matter if the students make mistakes because if they don’t do something well they have an opportunity to try again, without causing any offence, and learn from their mistakes. The small group sessions are also an advantage, allowing everyone to participate and to critique and learn from one another,” he said.

Dr Brougham said that patients would be the ultimate beneficiaries of teaching students to convey empathy, speak to them without jargon and consult in a way that encourages them to express themselves. “Although this teaching is done in a palliative care context, it really has the potential to benefit patients and students across all areas of clinical practice - these social and communication skills are so important and yet they are not always taught,” he added.

Student feedback on the program is invariably positive with one student from a recent workshop saying the opportunity had provided “one of the best sessions of the year thus far for me.” Another praised the “underlying principles of hypothesis testing, self-critique and self-improvement” as being “important life and career skills.”  Dr Haigh said the success of consecutive workshops, which cater for a total of around 25 students across three sessions each year, has seen both parties commit to continuing with the arrangement into the future.

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