Suspension of Disbelief is So Yesterday – Lets Think About a Great Movie Encounter

The concept of “suspension of disbelief” was orginally attirubuted to a poet/philospher in the 1800’s with regard to creating works of fiction to be interpreted by readers. When I first started in healthcare simulation back in 1997 it was told to me that we needed to create an environment where there is a suspension ofdisbelief so that the participants will believe that they are in the actual health care environment and perform accordingly. I drank the coolaid, I thought that is what we were to do. Today when I reflect on this notion it seems a bit crazy when it is inerpreted to mean that we are designing simulations to make participants forget they are in the simulated environment.

Certainly we don’t want health care professionals to actually think they are in the real clinical environment when they engage in simulation.  We want to create an evironment where they can perform aspects of what they do when they are taking care of real patients so that we can form an opinion to help them improve. This ocurrs through feedback,  assessment and debriefing methods as well as other innovative learning and assessment strategies.  I think we need to think of it more as a “fiction contract” which I believe was a term coined by Peter Dieckmann of Copenhagen which has always resonated with me. (At least he was the first person i heard use it in that concept, shutterstock_130674926and he a brilliant mind in simulation as well as a friend.  So barring any information to the contrary, i’ll leave it attributed to him for the time being 🙂 )

A good metaphor would be to think of it more like the intellectual engagement of going to see a great movie. The movie goer buys a ticket and enters into a contract (of sorts) with the producers of the film and perhaps the movie theater involving a belief  that the money they are spending will allow them to see something that is not quite real, but is a reenactment of something real, and  perhaps they will be participating in it emotionally and psycologically, but they never thought it was real.  However, the value to the participant is in the movie metaphor would be the entertainment provision.  So in essence the “deal” is summarized by the fact that they are entering into an unofficial agreement that says I will provide you $15 to buy the movie ticket, and you will provide me two hours of entertainment. 

I think there are strong analogies between that and the way we should approach healthcare simulation relationship between participants and the simulation providers. We need to create environments where the participants trust us so that they will engage psycologically and emotionally in the simulated environment  in exchange for the valuable use of their time to help them improve as a healthcare provider. 

I think that if we shift the focus so that we are not trying to create a “suspension of disbelief”, it will allow us to better create the environment necessary for effective healthcare simulation. That is that we realize we’re not trying to recreate everything to do with reality in healthcare, we’re just trying to recreate that which allows the participant to engage in a way that they might when they are actually taking care of patients. I think it is particularly important to be direct in letting the participant know that not everything we do in simulation will mimic their realistic practice environment. If we are honest with this orientation and apporach, I believe it causes less constrenation on the part of the participant who is in an environment where some things seem real and some things do not.

Participants are often experiencing a sense of  internal “conflict” when interpreting what the see, hear and experience in the simulation, wondering is this supposed to be part of the simulation or not? I am of the opinion that they are more likely to reconcile this with us if we are frank, open and honest about the intent and expectations of the simulation. This is in contrast to simply asking them to “pretend this is all real” conceptually describing the mantra of suspension of disbelief.

Through this bilateral agreement we enter into a fiction contract or a trust contract that says, on the participant’s side, I will engage in this activity in exchage for the trust that you are making valuable use of my time and helping me become a better healthcare professional.  On the simulation provider side of the agreement it goes something like this: “we will create an educational program using aspects of simulation, which some parts will feel realistic and some will not, but we commit to you that this will be a valuable use of your time with tust, dignity, respect and professionalism. We will attempt to help you get better as a healthcare provider.”  Isn’t that what we’re all trying to accomplish? To me this seems more plausible than asking professionals to suspend the disbelief and interpret the entire simulation as “real”………

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