Setting the Stage: The Pre-Brief


Simulation is an indelible part of medical education as well as the training of other healthcare professionals. At DREEAM I’m lucky to be able to work with the great cohort of simulated patients trained by my colleague Ali Whitfield. Working with real human beings rather than mannequins adds another layer of realism and has become a firm fixture in the training we offer at DREEAM.

However, being ‘on stage’ in a simulation remains a very divisive issue for learners. From my experience half of students will feed back how much they love simulation and want more with the other half hating every moment. That’s usually due to previous bad experiences or pre-conceived notions.

As I’ve worked more with simulation as a facilitator I’ve put more emphasis at the beginning; the pre-brief or ‘setting the stage’ partly due to these pre-conceived notions but also as not every student has the same experiences with simulation. Much as an actor wouldn’t expect to just walk onto a stage so a novice student shouldn’t be expected to just perform without some clear guidance.

My pre-briefs usually follow the same pattern:

  • Introduce the session and why we are using simulation - it’s not being arbitrarily used to scare but instead with very clear objectives with definite relevance

  • The setting (ward, A&E, GP practice whatever) their role (you’re a student/doctor/nurse) and the expectations of the behaviours expected - act as you would as a doctor, treat the simulated patient as a real patient etc. How do referrals work in this scenario? Also, what is expected from the audience? I regularly get one member to act as a scribe on a flip-chart for the learners in the simulation to refer to. Encourage the audience to be active observers


  • Orientate the students around the environment and the equipment. Highlight any potential sources of confusion such as differences between the patient’s palpable pulse rate and what is on the monitor. Will there be blood results available? Are we running in real time? This helps keep the scenarios running later on

  • Acknowledge simulation can be challenging and where possible allay fears - if you’ve set the scenario up so that any mistakes made will be corrected and death is not an outcome then tell them! In my experience the biggest apprehension toward simulation from students is that we’re trying to catch them out and they’ll kill the patient. If that won’t happen let them know. If it might happen then also let them know and reassure that it’s a safe environment allowing for these mistakes

  • Lifelines - the timeout is a common theme in any simulation and it’s important to reassure students about this. I go further and add lifelines similar to ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ Students can ‘Ask the Audience’ - turn to the learner watching and ask their opinion or ‘Phone a Friend’ - ask the facilitator a closed, focused question; “I think it’s aortic dissection what’s the best imaging for this?” If it’s not going great we can always time-out and take a break; this is fine and should be used if needed

  • Is there a specific aspect of simulation they’d like you to look out for? Giving useful feedback can be challenging. Students may have apprehensions about one particular skill or part of simulation such as cannulation or delivering a useful referral based on previous experiences. If they can tell you this beforehand it helps observation and providing feedback the student can use

  • Give them appropriate information beforehand. Most of the simulations I do with students are based in the Emergency Department. One is with a patient presenting with chest pain who turns out to have a pulmonary embolus. In real life there would be an ECG. I provide this ECG and give them a moment to read it. I ask what the students are thinking and why. They usually say Acute Coronary Syndrome. At the end after diagnosing PE during the feedback I then ask them to take us through the process of how they ended up changing their mind from ACS to PE (usually because the patient complains of calf pain). I reinforce how important it is to always consider ACS but also what aspects should make us think PE (yes calf pain is important but the patient had oxygen saturations of 90% with no lung history, a clear chest and her ECG shows AF.) - this shows the nature of a true ‘working diagnosis’ as well as helping us understanding each others thought processes

Ultimately the pre-brief is about you and your learners finding out about each other. Standardise as much as you can. Students who go first may resent being ‘the example’ so think about making a video to show everyone what is expected at the beginning. This is then easier for you later on. I think pre-brief is an investment in your simulation sessions. The more and better you do at the beginning the bigger and more rewarding your session will be.

Thanks for reading