Abbey Theatre to help doctors ‘stress test’ bad news

Open disclosure workshops to available for consultants from all disciplines

From left,  Phil Kingston, community and education manager, Abbey Theatre; Prof Mary Horgan, RCPI president; and Prof Chris Fitzpatrick.

From left, Phil Kingston, community and education manager, Abbey Theatre; Prof Mary Horgan, RCPI president; and Prof Chris Fitzpatrick.


The Abbey Theatre’s stage will be used as a “stress tester” for hospital consultants from all specialities from July to help improve how they deliver difficult news to patients.

The national theatre’s community and education department is providing applied drama workshops to trainee obstetricians from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI), teaching them how to be more empathetic and compassionate when dealing with stillbirth and pregnancy loss.

From July, consultants from all specialities will be able to avail of open disclosure workshops aimed at training doctors how to approach and deliver difficult news to patients and families when things go wrong with their healthcare.

Phil Kingston, community and education manager at the Abbey Theatre, said much of the workshops with consultants would explore each individual’s existing communication styles.

“We will be using the Abbey’s stage as a stress tester for how they present themselves, break bad news, apologise for clinical mistakes,” he said.

“As the workshop evolves we’ll see if there are any particular events it would be useful to explore . . . When I say the stage is a ‘stress tester’ I mean that one of the functions of a stage is to turn up the volume on how someone communicates, not just with words but with their whole body and, indeed, being.”

Great interest

Prof Chris Fitzpatrick, former master of the Coombe hospital and clinical lead on the collaboration, said there had been “great interest” in the workshops to date.

“I think we’ve gained a very significant amount of experience in relation to bereavement and I suppose translating the experience we’ve had in terms of breaking bad news into a much bigger area of open disclosure. It would seem throughout the health services that when communication breaks down in the context of an adverse event, the effects can be long-lasting and can be very traumatic,” he said.

“We’re obviously working with consultants because disclosures should come at a senior level . . . We’re going to start off with the lead consultants in a number of specialities and then we will be rolling it out to consultants.”

Dr Gabriel Scally’s report into the CervicalCheck programme last year found policy and practice in relation to open disclosure in the health service was “deeply contradictory and unsatisfactory”.

Prof Fitzpatrick said the RCPI viewed the workshops as “a necessity to actually change things”.

“I’m not aware of any other professional organisation or board who are working in the same way; it’s a very collaborative approach with the national theatre,” he said.

“If something goes wrong or there’s an adverse event, words really matter and words can hurt and we have the vocalised sensitivity to choose those words in a really pressurised environment and that is not something you learn in medical school.”

Separately, the RCPI is developing a new open disclosure online course that is based on the experiences of Lorraine Walsh, a cervical cancer survivor and campaigner.