SINGAPORE - For doctors, learning how to communicate well with patients can be tricky - even more so when the patients are teenagers.
To prepare medical students here for real-world scenarios with adolescent patients, KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) runs a programme that lets students practise having conversations with young theatre actors.
During each three-hour session, students from Duke-NUS Medical School and Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine at Nanyang Technological University talk to actors about difficult-to-broach topics like sexual health or puberty, drug use, and underage smoking and alcohol use.
They are given communication tips and get feedback from both the actors and KKH doctors as they go through group exercises.
The aim of the adolescent simulated patient programme - which started in August 2016 - is to help students refine their communication skills with teenage patients, said Dr Kumudhini Rajasegaran, head of KKH's Adolescent Medicine Service.
"As physicians, we have the responsibility to open discussions around these issues with our adolescent patients as they may not feel so comfortable," she added.
To make the conversations realistic, participating actors are aged 16 to 18 and are trained by KKH doctors to act as patients and give constructive feedback.
The actors are from Buds Theatre, a non-profit group that provides platforms for young theatre graduates to practise their craft.
Each session has around 15 students and seven actors, and students attend the session only once.
So far, nearly 200 medical students have participated in the programme, which is compulsory for students who do a paediatric clinical rotation at KKH.
The outcomes of the programme are encouraging.
Surveys by KKH showed that students improved their skills in areas such as conducting interviews with teenage patients, discussing doctor-patient confidentiality, establishing rapport with patients and their parents, and negotiating for time alone with patients.
Students were also more confident in discussing tricky topics like alcohol and tobacco use, sexual health and mood-related issues.
Ms Cheryl Woo, 28, a second-year Duke-NUS medical student, can vouch for the programme's usefulness.
"I think it's impossible to have a conversation about sensitive issues without fumbling for the first time," she said.
"So it was really great that we were able to do so for the first time in a safe environment where we could get feedback and polish our skills."
Dr Kumudhini said there are plans to expand the programme to include more medical students, and extend it to healthcare professionals who deal with adolescents.