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The Rise of Medical Improv and Its Positive Impact on Doctors, Patients, and Staff

Alongside specialty specific courses like anesthesiology and radiology, some medical schools now offer medical improv electives to students. This is music to our ears. Why? Because as patients, we appreciate good bedside manner from our physicians. As people, we know doctors are human beings under enormous pressure who need to think on their feet and respond thoughtfully to new stimuli constantly. It’s just like performing improv, with much higher stakes (and paychecks).

What is Medical improv?

Medical improv is the application of improv exercises and principles highlighting communication, listening, spontaneity, mindfulness, and quick thinking to the medical profession. Think: George Clooney as ER’s Dr. Ross and Patrick Dempsey as Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. McDreamy working on their nonverbal communication skills by making eye contact and speaking gibberish to each other. Sign. Us. Up.

Why is it popular?

Medical improv is popping up all over the place because it continues to improve performance everywhere from the classroom to the operating table. For instance, after The University of Arizona College of Pharmacy added an improv element to their Interviewing and Counseling Skills course, test scores on the first standardized patient exam rose dramatically and continued climbing in subsequent classes. Out of a possible 150 on the exam, scores skyrocketed from an average of 120 to 134 in just two years. Five years after adding improv to the curriculum, the average score was 144 and the number of perfect scores had risen from just one to 24. The areas in which students improved most were recognizing cues and providing reflective responses. Hello!? This is awesome.

Enough math

We’re not doctors, so here are some positive results that have nothing to do with numbers for all our right-brained readers.*

Improv + adaptability

Physician Anu Atluru wrote an article for The Atlantic about going “off-script” while speaking with a patient to meet the needs of a specific situation. His shift from a clinical tone (which medical students are taught and doctors rely on to perform duties) to an honest demeanor turned a sour interaction into a successful one. Dr. Atluru connected with his patient on a human level thanks to the flexibility and empathy he learned from improv.

Improv + confidence

Katie Watson, JD, has been teaching medical improv at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine since 2002. What we love most about her extensive and insightful thoughts on this practice is her focus on drawing out the unique physician hiding inside each student. Through improv, Watson encourages people to embrace their strengths and weaknesses and build on them, rather than try to morph into a version of themselves they don’t recognize. Improv helps players find authentic voices and trust their guts.

Improv + listening

Sure, learning a basic script helps when it comes to doctor-patient interactions, but patients can be real curve balls. Anjani Pranav Sheth, a student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, appreciated medical improv for opening her eyes to how easy it is to tune someone out while you plot what to say next. Instead, improv requires players to operate moment to moment, focusing on the current patient, not the one you just saw or the crowd in the waiting room. We can’t speak for everyone, but we’d rather discuss health concerns with a physician who listens to understand rather than one who cuts us off with pre-planned dialogue.

Improv + teamwork

Folks completing training and residencies aren't the only ones benefiting from improv, either. Dean of Baylor College of Medicine's School of Medicine, Dr. Jennifer Christner, praises improv for its application to team-building. Contrary to popular belief, improv is not about being the funniest person in the room. More than anything else, a good improv show requires a group of people ready and willing to support each other no matter what, even when things get rough. We won't always agree with each other, but we've got to work together.

If you're a medical professional or work in the medical field, we encourage you to explore improv! Take a class, see a show - or better yet, contact us to lead a workshop for you and your team. We love improv and would be thrilled to share these tools with you.

*To all the neurologists obsessed with our blog, please forgive this vast generalization.

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