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Submitted by Meg McCaffrey on July 27, 2011 homepage. Call it an inspired meeting of the Arts and the Sciences.

Nursing professors were looking for an innovative way to teach students how to better communicate with patients. That’s because many errors in healthcare are caused by poor communication between healthcare professionals and patients, leading to sometimes life-threatening mistakes. Professors say this sad new norm has to do in part with less time to converse with patients. Compounding the problem is the growing use of electronic medical records, leading to less interaction between doctors and nurses.

Enter undergraduate Zachary Tesoriero ’11, a member of Fairfield’s improvisational comedy troupes, “On The Spot” and “Your Mom Does Improv.” With just an outline of a script in hand, both Tesoriero and the students were told that the simulation would involve Tesoriero playing a terminally ill teenager talking about dying with his “nurses.”

Working in pairs, the nursing students spoke to the “patient,” taking ample time to understand his symptoms and concerns. “Our goal is to enhance student nurses’ interpersonal communication so that they will be better prepared to enter the workforce upon graduation,” said Dr. Eileen O’Shea, assistant professor of nursing. All of the interactions were videotaped so faculty and students could later observe what communication efforts worked and where improvement was needed.

The results were interesting – and eye-opening.

From the simulations, student Krislin Yosuico ’11 discovered that communication might be the most difficult part of nursing. It also helped that she didn’t know what to expect when she first saw the patient. “It’s important to remember that even though silence may seem awkward, it’s sometimes what is needed within a conversation,” she said. “Now when speaking to a patient, I think in my mind what he or she may be feeling and what type of conversation they want to have.”

Among the many simulations senior Michelle Anderson has done at Fairfield, she found this particular one the most helpful. “This was a sensitive topic – end-of-life care for a child and teenager,” she said. “In that situation, the students really had to react quickly, and we were all able to see how awkward of a situation this can be for a nurse.”

The effort fit right into the School of Nursing’s approach to teaching. That is, supplementing classroom study and clinical rotations with simulation learning exercises, undertaken in the school’s Robin Kanarek ’96 Learning Resource Center, a state-of-the-art facility resembling a hospital with high tech mannequins representing patients of all ages.

Michael Pagano, a physician assistant and associate professor of communication who helped teach the course, said there are so many communication barriers in healthcare, especially as it becomes so cost and time-driven. “That’s why it’s vital to work on enhancing nursing students’ skills in communicating – not only how they speak to patients but just as importantly how they listen to them and respond back with meaningful questions to gauge their needs such as pain management.”

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