Elaine C. Meyer, a nurse and psychologist who directs Children’s Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice, which produces the workshops, later told me that this was a good example of why PERCS has used professional improv actors — who are trained to be expecially sensitive to the words and body language of others — since its inception. Meyer said that an amateur actor, or even an actual patient volunteer, would not likely have had that kind of insight during an improvisation.
But do we really want the person who tells us she botched our kid’s cancer diagnosis to be able to fake remorse more effectively? David M. Browning, a social worker who co-leads the radiology PERCS workshop, explains that learning to fake remorse and other emotions is not the point of the program. He tells participants in the improv session about acknowledging clinical errors: “We don’t want you to act sorry. We want you to be sorry.”
Psychiatrist Helen Riess, director of MGH’s Empathy and Relational Science Program, emphasizes that acting isn’t the same as faking. Riess says, “acting as if you care, with empathic facial expressions, posture, and tone of voice, can actually result in feeling that you care.” When Riess monitored heart rates, skin conductance, and other physiologic indicators of emotion on clinicians improvising difficult conversations with actors, she found that their emotional responses were genuine — and more likely to be so if they had rehearsed in advance.
It’s a shame I didn’t rehearse before my encounter with the truck driver’s wife.
I felt so badly for her. But sometimes feelings aren’t enough.
Dr. Suzanne Koven is a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Read her blog on Boston.com/Health. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.