Bedside Manner
18 minutes, 2016
HD video

Bedside Manner focuses on real-life standardized patient simulations to explore the performative aspect of doctor-patient encounters and issues concerning empathy. Standardized patients (SPs) are professional medical actors who are trained to present particular sets of symptoms in order to help medical students improve their diagnostic skills and bedside manner. Simulations delineate a space in which viewers and participants are asked to suspend disbelief and rehearse for trauma. In addition to offering viewers a rare glimpse into the practice of training doctors, the uncanny medical simulations also reveal the tenuous boundary between the real and artificial. 

Artist and filmmaker Corinne Botz gained special access to clinical skills centers throughout New York City. The documentary stars the fascinating neurologist Dr. Alice W. Flaherty, author of the bestselling book, The Midnight Disease. Bedside Manner was funded by the Jerome Foundation. 

The central character, Dr. Alice Flaherty, plays herself as a doctor, patient and standardized patient. Dr. Flaherty is currently writing a book about the neuroanatomy of empathy. We learn her interest in the performative interpretation of medicine resulted in part from the death of her premature twins and the lack of empathy displayed by her obstetrician. Analogous to the construction of a medical write-up in which doctors decide what is true and relevant for diagnosis and treatment, spectators of Bedside Manner will be challenged to decipher what is authentic in Flaherty’s narrative. To paraphrase Flaherty: she is a doctor learning how to be a patient, in order to teach doctors how to be better doctors. 

Focusing on neuropsychology case (delirium), the film was shot in a manner that references how the camera has been used to represent and construct medical relationships. Standardized patient are performing, yet the encounter is also real, revealing the ritual gestures and phrases of medical interactions. The first scene of the film depicts a reversal of the traditional medical gaze from the patient onto the student-doctor. The nervous and vulnerable medical student’s performance leaves us thinking not only thinking about what patients feel, but what student doctors feel as they go through the process of becoming an “authority.”

Flaherty’s ability to see from the perspective of both the physician and patient allows her to approach medicine from a unique angle. Viewers are compelled to ask which aspects of the film are not just true but relevant to their own medical history. Real patients too, in order to communicate their suffering, must learn how to act in doctors’ offices. In Bedside Manner, the notion of authenticity is related back to acting in our regular lives -- life requires a certain amount of pretending to be what one is not.

Bedside Manner invites reflections on empathy, authenticity and medical relationships.