Open Access Open Badges Research article

From board to bedside – training the communication competences of medical students with role plays

Katharina Luttenberger*, Elmar Graessel, Cosima Simon and Carolin Donath

Author Affiliations

Division of Medical Psychology and Medical Sociology, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Friedrich-Alexander-Universitaet Erlangen-Nuremberg, Erlangen, Germany

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:135  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-135

Published: 5 July 2014



Role plays and standardized patients are often used in medical education and have proven to be effective tools for enhancing the communication skills of medical students. Most course concepts need additional time and teaching staff, and there are only a few studies about role plays in the preclinical segment.


We developed a highly consolidated concept for the curricular course of 2nd-year medical students, including ten role plays about five subjects: anamnesis, shared decision making, prevention, breaking bad news, and so-called “difficult interactions”. Before the course, all students were asked about their expectations and attitudes toward the course. After the course, all students rated the course, their individual learning progress, whether their expectations had been fulfilled, and re-evaluated their attitudes. Questionnaires were self-report measures and had a quantitative and a short qualitative section and were analyzed with descriptive statistics. Group differences (sex, age, role played) were evaluated with t tests at a Bonferonni-corrected significance level of p = .03 and the non-parametric U-tests.


Implementing this practical course concept is possible without incurring additional costs. This paper not only shows how that can be done but also provides 5 examples of role scripts for different training subjects. The course concept was highly appreciated by the students. More than 75% felt that they had learned important communication techniques and would be better able to handle difficult situations. Playing the doctor’s role was felt to be more useful than playing the patient’s role. Women admitted a higher degree of shyness in the beginning and gave higher ratings to their learning progress than men. Students’ most frequent wish in the qualitative analysis was to be able to play the doctor’s role at least once. The students’ answers showed a differentiated pattern, thus suggesting that the influence of social desirability was minimal.


Practical skills can be taught successfully in the preclinical stage of medical education even without an increase in resources. The course concept described in this article provides an effective means by which to do so.

Teaching Materials; Teaching; Problem-based Learning; Education; Students, Medical; Students, Health Occupations; Schools, Medical; Academic Medical Centers; Psychology, Medical