Command performance

Sophie McNamara
Med J Aust
Published online: 5 November 2012

Dr Ana-Louise Martin believes acting skills can help doctors to communicate with their patients

The only theatre in which most doctors perform is the operating theatre, but Dr Ana-Louise Martin believes many doctors could also learn some useful skills from another type of theatre.

Dr Martin is director of Medical Drama, a Sydney-based company that runs workshops for doctors based on acting techniques to enhance communication skills.

Dr Martin, a final-year psychiatry registrar at Austin Hospital in Melbourne, got the idea for Medical Drama in 2008 when she was helping with the clinical exams for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

“I knew there was a low pass rate and I was curious as to why”, she says. “When I saw what was required I realised that there was a need to help candidates with their communication skills.”

Dr Martin, who had long been an enthusiast of the performing arts, recognised that many of the fundamentals of acting — such as communicating a message with an audience — also applied to medical practice.

The first workshop in June 2008 mostly attracted psychiatry registrars. Since then, registrars and consultants from various specialties, particularly psychiatry, surgery and paediatrics, have attended the courses.

The workshops are facilitated by professional actors, notably Medical Drama’s creative director Peter Eyers, who is head of acting at The McDonald College of performing arts in Sydney and has worked as an actor for over a decade.

Dr Martin writes the clinical scenarios used in the workshops to ensure that all content is relevant for doctors.

The workshops aim to help doctors build confidence, recognise and manage common sources of performance anxiety and develop improvisational skills.

Dr Martin says people sometimes wonder why improvisational skills are relevant to doctors. “Doctors often have to think on their feet, such as when we’re communicating bad news, or when family members are distressed, and these are not scripted conversations”, she says. “It’s important to have some skills on hand so we can quickly adapt to the needs of our patients.”

The workshops also include a camera session, where doctors can watch themselves perform on camera, before and after receiving direction on enhancing the way they communicate.

“Most people find that exercise really useful. They learn a lot about themselves, but in a supportive environment.”

Dr Martin says there is a lot of pressure on doctors to communicate effectively with patients, colleagues and supervisors but they receive little training in this area.

“Once you’ve been out of medical school for just a few years, you’re expected to present to big audiences in front of your colleagues and supervisors”, she says. “Most people are quite terrified by that.”

“I get tired of hearing comments about how poorly doctors communicate. It’s unfair because doctors aren’t taught to communicate. Communication skills need to be a part of training — not just during medical school, but in postgraduate years and as part of specialty training.”

As well as the workshops, Dr Martin runs individual sessions for doctors wanting to improve their presentation and communication skills — something she hopes to do more of once she’s completed her psychiatry training.

Dr Martin says the psychiatry training program has been one of the most difficult things she has done, but she appreciates that the specialty allows her to branch out into different areas.

“Understanding people’s psychological profiles has applications in so many areas”, she says.

Before studying medicine at Otago University, New Zealand, Dr Martin completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in languages. She had always leaned more towards the arts than the sciences, but decided to apply for medicine because she wanted to work in a healing profession.

Dr Martin says her broad background, which also includes developing training programs for the retail industry, has been beneficial as a psychiatrist where she needs to communicate with, and relate to, people from diverse backgrounds.

“I started training in 1990 and at the time it was quite innovative having someone from an arts background. It does make for a more broad-minded sort of person”, she says.

“I suppose it’s not surprising I ended up in psychiatry and Medical Drama — it’s a natural progression for me really.”

Medical Drama courses are held at The McDonald College in Sydney. For more information, go to
  • Sophie McNamara



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