Are you a better than average driver? If you said yes, you’re not alone: When asked to rank their own abilities, most people claim to possess above average performance. Called “illusory superiority,” this phenomenon is prevalent no matter the question: IQ, work performance, even communication. And given the importance of communication in medicine, it might be time to better understand your skills.
As Senior Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs, Doug Jones, MD, understands the role communication plays in clinical care. “The art of communication is a fundamental aspect of the art of medicine and depends, like all art, on mastery of the craft. It should not surprise or embarrass us to discover that from time to time our craftsmanship needs attention. For most of us, ‘just doing’ communication is as unlikely to make us a great communicator as weekend tennis is to make us a pro,” he said.
No matter how much we prepare ourselves to have a difficult conversation, there’s a variable we can’t control: The person’s reaction to what has been said. That’s why simulation is such a valuable tool. It allows learners to practice conversations with a range of people and reactions.
Eva Aagaard, MD, director of the AME and CAPE, says simulation training with standardized patients helps to improve communication skills in difficult situations. Whether by team-focused workshops or one-on-one time with individuals, Dr. Aagaard and her staff work with anyone interested in making sure their communication does not hinder their chances at professional advancement.
“As clinicians, we come across all kinds of different personalities in our day-to-day interactions,” she said. “When you simulate conversations, the scenarios allow for real life reactions—ranging from aggressive or angry to frustrated or bored.”
“In simulation, we see how conversations can play out in real time. And afterwards we talk about best practices and how to manage conversations that go awry,” she said.
What people learn during simulation sessions can often be categorized as common sense. But as Michael McDermott, MD, an avid participant in the CAPE’s simulation offerings, points out: “Much is what I already knew, but I didn’t necessarily know how to apply it consistently and effectively.”
While typical medical school environments do offer some coaching as it relates to physician-patient communication, very little emphasis is placed on the peer-to-peer communication that is required in any health care setting. Dr. Aagaard says they are increasingly working with people who either want to advance to a leadership role or have already been placed in one.
Dr. McDermott understands leadership involves skills that must be constantly developed and honed. The simulation training also offered him a bonus: “It’s been very helpful to me to understand that all people in leadership experience these difficult situations. I am not alone.”
Health care environments are rife with conflict. Having the skills to engage in effective conversations about difficult topics is paramount to increasing the resilience of staff and teams, and decreasing the risk of burnout.
“Resilience is about the ability to weather change, weather difficulty, and come out stronger at the end,” Dr. Aagaard explains. “Right now our health care organizations are facing strain and change, and it’s not easy on anyone.”
Dr. Aagaard explains that change places a great deal of stress on individuals within the system. “This is when we start seeing burnout. And when we start seeing burnout, we see bad behaviors. We fail to implement change because individuals just don’t have the bandwidth.”
Of course, this also impacts patient safety.
“When people are experiencing huge levels of stress, we see shortcuts. We see people stop communicating. And this leads to a lack of attention to quality."
Given the increasing rates of burnout both locally and nationally, Dr. Aagaard believes now is the time to help the teams and individuals within our organizations become more resilient.
“We need to create systems and leaders that are able to think about this in context. The simulation training we provide can help prepare us.”
Dr. Aagaard reminds us that when it comes to communication and difficult conversations, no one is truly an expert. “When I teach these workshops, I realize that I’m still learning. Every simulation I participate in helps me become a better communicator.”
CAPE offers four different types of programs, including:
1. Communication Skills Series Workshops. Working in small groups, faculty apply communication skills in several standardized patient-colleague scenarios that involve differences in perspectives, values and opinions. In these highly emotional conversations with team members and patients, faculty learn relationship-centered skills to communicate respectful dissent, and repair and maintain relationships, while working within diverse beliefs and power gradients.
2. Customized Training. CAPE, along with the Academy of Medical Educators and the Office of Lifelong Learning, can customize sessions for anyone struggling with teaching, difficult conversations or professionalism in times of high stress. This one-on-one attention allows for the development of contextually rich and authentic simulation cases aimed at simulating stressors experienced by the individual.
3. Community Collaboration. Colorado’s diverse populations mean practitioners need to be more skilled than ever. CAPE has worked with the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Patient Navigator Training Collaborative to simulate patient scenarios with underserved populations such as LGBTQ, refugees and ethnic minorities. Simulations involve social determinants of health; health beliefs and behavior; ethical, legal and professional issues; health care team-patient-client communication; care coordination; and patient education and support.
4. Case Development Sessions. Meet your teaching or assessment objectives by learning best practices for constructing a patient’s story from highly-trained simulation educators who are certified in case development. You will learn how to integrate authentic affects and behaviors to mimic real world experiences.
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View the CU Clinical Trials Website for volunteer opportunities.