Survey research suggests that medical students in the United States report feeling insufficiently knowledgeable about the care of older adults, and that they expect to find dealing with patients with dementia time-consuming and excessively challenging. A study published in Academic Medicine found that participation in a nursing home-based storytelling group with older adults with dementia improved medical students’ attitudes toward this population.
This storytelling intervention was driven by the hypothesis that interactions with older adults in non-hospital, non-clinical settings may provide physicians and medical students with a greater sense of empathy for their older patients, particularly those with dementia. The authors hypothesized that after spending time with older adults with dementia in a non-clinical activity, medical students would have improved attitudes toward individuals with dementia. If true, this would suggest the utility of including non-clinical interactions with older adults as part of geriatric training curricula for medical students.
For the study, 22 fourth-year medical students were administered the Dementia Attitudes Scale (DAS), a validated measure with 20 items on topics such as knowledge about dementia and comfort around people with dementia. These students then participated in a group storytelling exercise with 20 residents, each diagnosed with dementia, at their retirement community. The medical students were again administered the DAS after spending time with the storytelling group. After the intervention, students (through the DAS) reported significantly higher levels of comfort with and knowledge of dementia and individuals with dementia, particularly regarding the potentially rewarding nature of working with patients with dementia.
There were several limitations to the study, such as the small sample size, the lack of a comparison or control group, and the self-report nature of the scale being used, which is particularly relevant given that the study participants were aware of the purpose of the intervention. Despite these limitations, the results fit with the hypothesis that non-clinical interactions with individuals with dementia are likely to improve medical students’ attitudes toward such individuals.