Story by Shannon Thomason, UAB News

An occupational therapy student needed to get a patient, diagnosed with dementia, out of the bed and across the room for evaluation, but this was different from most patient-caregiver interactions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

This patient was an advanced acting student portraying someone with dementia to test an occupational therapy student’s competence.

Students in the School of Health ProfessionsDepartment of Occupational Therapy are now getting real-world experience with a new cross-professional program that uses students from the College of Arts and SciencesDepartment of Theatre as patients.

Theater students get to test their chops in acting out a diagnosis before auditioning for a character role with medical issues, and OT students get to work with “real” patients before they begin their field study.

The OT students must master many skills in human interaction before moving to the next step of their education, including fieldwork rotations, during which they interact with real patients, says Deek Cunningham, M.S., OTR/L, SIPT, assistant professor of occupational therapy.

Cunningham was studying how to best incorporate patient simulation into the program when the idea struck him: UAB has drama students. Why not ask them to participate, and allow them at the same time to understand certain medical conditions?

He reached out and was quickly teamed with Professor of Theatre Dennis McLernon, head of performance in the department. Sixteen advanced acting students would portray patients with one of four common diagnoses the occupational therapy students may see: stroke, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and cerebral palsy. Cunningham trained them in symptoms of the conditions over two days. The acting students played both therapist and patient in four groups together as they prepared for their roles.

“I wanted them to know exactly what somebody looked like or how to portray somebody with a certain diagnosis, all the way down to their handwriting,” Cunningham said. “I wanted our students to be able to critically think and problem solve. I wanted them to honestly, truly be that person with a certain diagnosis.”

In the simulations, the 53 OT students had 30 minutes with their student patient to complete four requirements that will replicate their eventual assignments with a true patient in the real world: get the patient out of bed, get them across a room, deliver a clock face drawing test, and deliver a grocery list memory test. The student therapists are getting an opportunity to interact with human patients, but in a much safer environment, and it also allows the teacher to observe their interacting skills.

The acting students are trained in improvisation, McLernon says.

“They’re employing it moment by moment based on what the therapist might ask them to do and how they envision from the guideline information how the patient might respond,” McLernon said. “Our students are versed in spontaneous behavior within certain guidelines as actors, and this is just another set of given circumstances that they might get as a character.”

The advanced acting students have worked at roleplaying before for Children’s of Alabama, helping train students in working with families of young children in the hospital. McLernon says the Department of Theatre is open to interacting with the medical side of campus in roleplaying and in any other capacities that their faculty and students may be able to fulfill.

“It is a great opportunity for our students because they are put in real-world situations,” McLernon said. “This is an exercise that really develops empathy, and that’s something that is very important, not only for theater students, but for us as people. We want to thank the Department of Occupational Therapy for including us. The arts want to be included in any way we can help advance the medical side or help explore the human condition.”