Acting, as a profession, is more versatile than one might think.
Even though the first thoughts that may come to mind are performers up on a stage or in a movie, faculty and students from the UNO Department of Theatre have spent the last several years putting their talents to work to help educate the world’ next generation of mental health professionals.
In a partnership with Howard Liu, M.D., director of the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska (BHECN) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, members of the UNO Department of Theatre act out various scenarios that are recorded and then incorporated into online education modules for UNMC students to use as case studies for their classes.
“Howard called me up one day because he wanted to try a different method of teaching doctors how to recognize things like symptoms, body language and ways that patients may avoid answers,” explains Cindy Melby Phaneuf, professor of theatre at UNO. “It was like playing a character for our students, but a character with a mental illness. Howard would write the scenarios and I would direct the students.”
Recently, Liu, who is also assistant vice chancellor for the Office of Faculty Development at UNMC, was awarded the Creativity in Psychiatric Education Award from the American College of Psychiatrists for the initiative, which began with an e-learning module about adolescent depression in 2010.
"That was one of the first e-modules in the case library," Dr. Liu says. "When I founded and co-chaired the Clinical Simulation Initiative national task force at the Association of Directors of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry (ADMSEP), we realized we needed one to illustrate each major psychiatric diagnosis. Prior to this case library, no peer-reviewed library of psychiatry cases was available to medical students.”
Over the years, Melby Phaneuf says that they have provided actors for dozens of sessions, including ones produced to help doctors practice discussing end-of-life news with family members.
“There has to be an open communication between doctors and their patients,” she says. “While dealing with end-of-life information is obviously tough for the family, it is also incredibly difficult for doctors to discuss those topics as well.”
The modules in the national curriculum have been viewed more than 73,000 times over four years, both through the United States and internationally.
"They're getting good use," Dr. Liu said.
Melby Phaneuf says that the effort provides students with the opportunity to “flip the classroom” and spend their class time asking the instructor questions and practicing their own skills.
“Normally, students aren’t able to practice the actual methods they will be using in the classroom because they have to spend more time learning the lessons,” she says. “However, these e-modules allow students the opportunity to absorb the information before being in the classroom, giving them more time to practice their skills.”
She adds that the effort has also been incredibly beneficial because of the additional resources it provides to doctors in rural communities.
“Rural areas don’t have access to the same specialists that we do here in Omaha. These modules can help those doctors determine whether a patient really needs someone who is a specialist in a particular field.”
Dr. Liu explains that the whole project, and his recent award, is recognition of local and national collaboration.
"The module I created on adolescent depression used theatre students and faculty from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, UNMC providers, College of Nursing instructional technologists, BHECN funding, and Faculty Development expertise to assemble," he said. "And on the national level, the case library was built with a dozen colleagues from eight different North American medical schools. It really is a symbol of innovation through collaboration."
The importance of collaboration, even between something as seemingly different as theatre and medical science, is something Melby Phaneuf says keeps the entire Department of Theatre excited about working with Dr. Liu and UNMC.
“It is really about using innovative technology and innovative ideas to bring people together to solve problems.”