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November 1, 2017

From 'Julius Caesar' to 'The Flu Fighters,' med students turn to the arts to understand their patients—and themselves

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    While medical schools are increasingly incorporating the arts into the curriculum, Columbia University's Bard Hall Players—an extracurricular theater company run by medical students—is an "anomaly," allowing students to both relieve stress and foster the empathy and emotional intelligence needed in their future professions, Suzy Evans writes for the New York Times.

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    According to Evans, the Bard Hall Players was founded in 1967 and is operated by students at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. The company produces three shows each year, including a classic play in the winter, a more contemporary dramatic play in the spring, and a fall musical—and every aspect of each production, from lighting to performance to costumes, is put together by students. The productions run in an auditorium next to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

    The company is open to anyone from Columbia's medical campus—including nursing, dental, and doctoral students—who wishes to audition, and everyone seeking a spot is given a role onstage or off, Evans writes. According to Evans, the players include students with professional acting experience and those who've never before set foot on a stage.

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    Columbia is far from the only medical school to incorporate the arts. Harvard Medical School collaborates with the American Repertory Theater, and Yale School of Medicine requires students to take a course in which they observe paintings. Nor are the Bard Hall Players Columbia's sole artistic group: The College of Physician and Surgeons also features an a cappella group ("The Ultrasounds"); a symphony comprised of students and staff; and each class has a band ("The Flu Fighters" is the name of the second-year students' band).

    However, according to Evans, the Bard Hall Players is unique because the group is an extracurricular theater program that's student run. The unique club in fact serves as a draw for some medical students, such as Kyle Lindsey McCormick, a second-year medical student and co-president of the group. "It's what sold me on Columbia—how could I go anywhere else?" he said.

    Current and former participants say the program—similar to arts programs featured in medical school curriculum—has been beneficial on multiple fronts, including the opportunity to put their education to practice. For example, Lia Boyle, a director in the company and medical school student, prepared for her production of "Julius Caesar" by talking with the cast about how Julius Caesar had epilepsy, described as "the falling sickness," and how the character's confusion could be a post-seizure reaction.

    And the club provides students with a much-needed source of stress relief, Evans writes. Sam Bruce, a fourth-year medical student at Columbia, explained, "Medical school can be very stressful. You need an outlet where the people are a little bit more forgiving." He continued, "You can't go into a patient's room and look like you're having a bad day. You have to leave that all at the door."

    Most importantly, however, students and instructors believe the program helps burgeoning medical professionals empathize with their patients. As Lisa Mellman, the senior associate dean of student affairs at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, said, "It enhances empathy and understanding and emotional intelligence of our students, and it translates into enhanced understanding for patients from other backgrounds and cultures."

    Jenna Lanz, a second-year student and the co-president of the Players, added that being able to "see other people's lives and put yourself into them" helps students to "serve them better and understand what they're going through in a different way" (Evans, New York Times, 10/18).

    5 myths physicians believe about patient experience

    5 myths physicians believe about patient experience

    Excellent patient experience is a critical piece of modern medicine, reflected clearly in outcomes. And more than amenities, clean rooms, or quiet during night, the factors that most inflect patient experience all relate to communication and coordination among the care team—factors that physicians are in a unique position to influence.

    Clinician-patient communication, leadership of the care team, and support and empathy for the patient across the unit are the most important factors for success, and they're all driven by the physician as the "Influencer in Chief."

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