You don’t have to be mad to teach at RMIT, but for Dr Sonja Cleary it helps to be Dotty.
Dotty is Cleary's alter ego: an elderly lady with a variety of health issues, who visits students in class at RMIT's School of Health and Biomedical Sciences to give them experience of dealing with patients in a simulated health clinic situation.
By donning a specially designed and lifelike silicone mask over her head and upper torso, Cleary assumes the character of Dorothy Beecham – complete with appropriate clothing and a walking frame.
"When I come in as Dotty it gives students an opportunity to reflect on how their more formal learning in lectures, clinical labs and tutorials can be translated to a real-life patient," Cleary said.
"Students are often astonished that she is not a real person and they engage with her openly."
Before going out into the real-world of client or patient care, students from a range of health disciplines, including nursing, Chinese medicine and osteopathy, get to hone their approach on Dotty, with her myriad ailments and difficult temperament.
According to students from the Bachelor of Health Science/Bachelor of Applied Science (Osteopathy) program, meeting up with Dotty is a welcome change from normal lectures, but also a challenge.
"It's interesting to be able to experience a difficult situation like you might get at a clinic - it's different and a bit of a taste of the real world," Anica Scherer said.
"You learn how to answer awkward questions, and you learn that there are limits to what you can and can’t say to a patient," Luka Di Fabio said.
"It's engaging; entertaining, as well," Tom Nicolacopoulos said.
"It's good as it really makes you concentrate and get involved," Lisa Lentini said.
"Sometimes you can be distracted in lectures, but with Dotty right there, you've really got to pay attention."
This MASK-ED™ simulation technique was first developed at Central Queensland University (CQU) and involves the use of silicone props to enable a teacher to transform into a character with specific health issues.
Cleary believes this approach gives students an enhanced learning experience by realistically simulating patient care.
"I've been trained in MASK-ED™ and have been a passionate mentee of my colleague Professor Kerry Reid-Searl, who developed it at CQU, where I started my academic career," Cleary said.
"In the nursing program here at RMIT University, academics began working with wigs and costumes before training in MASK-ED™, but we’re now using it for Interprofessional Learning to teach students from a range of other disciplines, as well as nursing."
Interprofessional Learning (IPL) involves students from several health disciplines learning together – with and from each other – with the object of cultivating collaborative practice for providing patient-centred health care.
"Currently the sessions involve chiropractic, osteopathy and Chinese medicine students who have to engage in some of the sessions to meet their clinic assessment requirements," she said.
"However, other professions are being integrated – Nursing, medical radiations, pharmacy, psychology – and each session has a specific focus to draw out issues identified by the clinical teams."
While the ultimate aim of IPL is to increase communication and collaboration between health professionals in the workplace, to improve client outcomes and reduce the risk of professionals working in isolation, it is also a requirement for all health professionals regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to learn about and from each other in this way.
As Associate Dean of Student Experience at RMIT's School of Health and Biomedical Sciences, Cleary embraces this kind of experiential learning.
"It allows the educator or lecturer to become a patient and react to students' engagement in a realistic way that also drives home clear learning objectives, to promote reflective practice and an appreciation of 'the other's' expertise," she said.
"With Dotty, we’re focusing on a complex elderly case so the students from all these disciplines learn about loss and grief and to appreciate the impact of other professional groups in dealing with real life patient issues.
"We've developed a program of materials and encourage our students to engage in tackling real clinical cases and examine issues that will improve reflection and practice."
Cleary is delighted to see the IPL program grow, with two new 'friends' joining Dotty – Bob and Rosie – who through this collaborative learning approach, will help to improve the effectiveness of health care and the quality of life for health and social service users now and in the future.