A Global Stage

A Global Stage

For two SPH graduates, theater holds a key to health.

The Scene: A classroom in South Africa. Charles Samenow, MD, MPH ’03, is talking with former U-M SPH classmate Erika Willacy, MPH ’04, about a theater-based approach to physician training. Samenow is associate professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine and program director of The New Theater of Medicine, a collaboration with Jeffrey Steiger, former director of U-M’s CRLT Players. The New Theater of Medicine uses interactive theater to help train health care professionals. Willacy is a lead health education specialist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Charles: On my first day as a graduate teaching assistant at Michigan, I attended an orientation session with a troupe of actors from the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT). I said to myself, “Wow, this is the way to train people!” I’d just come from medical school, where pretty much everyone used PowerPoint slides and lectures. Theater can be so much more effective.

Erika: That’s why it interests me so much. At CDC, we do trainings around the world for physicians who conduct health screenings for immigrants and refugees who want to come to the U.S. There’s a tremendous amount of variation among doctors—the skill sets they bring to the table, how they assess problems and write up reports. So I’ve been looking for ways to improve our trainings.

Charles: Theater works best in areas that involve emotion—

Erika: —which happens in the screening process. Some applicants have genuinely horrific stories. Others say things they think the doctors want to hear, but which aren’t necessarily true. The physicians who do our interviews are making decisions that will impact these people’s futures, so they have to be adept at dealing with emotional triggers. Emotions can easily cloud or sway their clinical judgment—in both good and bad ways.

Charles: You’re right, these are high-stakes interviews.

Erika: We need to find out what illnesses they may have so they can be successfully treated as soon as possible, and we can prevent the spread of disease in their community, on the plane, and in the U.S. community where they resettle.

Charles: Theater can get people talking about these issues. It creates a safe space where people can observe their behavior as if looking at themselves in a mirror. In the trainings I do with health care professionals, the feedback we typically get is, “Wow, that captured my experience exactly!” When that happens, people can more objectively analyze and understand their behavior.

Samenow, Willacy, and Jeffrey Steiger have conducted theater-based workshops for the CDC in South Africa and Hong Kong. Physicians from throughout the world attended. Participants have told Samenow, “This was great. It was a far better way of addressing these issues. I actually learned something. This is something I can take back and use in my practice.”