Can Improv Help Doctors
Connect With Patients?

September 8, 2017

Writing for The Atlantic last summer, Anu Atluru, MD, lamented the depersonalization that can happen in medical training and asked a critical question: how can physicians be expected to form genuine relationships with their patients?


"In medical school, interpersonal skills are de-personalized. Students are taught structure and essentially given a script. Traditional educators view improvisation as a risk. Yet the practice of medicine is spontaneous and, often times, risky."

In the article, Atluru offered an alternative to the current script. And it wasn’t a new or improved script. It was improv.

That’s right: improv.

Atluru said, “Medical schools are increasingly adapting improv tools to enhance patient interviewing, simulate difficult conversations and facilitate learning in medical teams.” She described a scenario in which she went “off-script” with an ER patient. Responding to how he presented (not just medically, but his answers, emotions, expressions and mannerisms), she spoke off the cuff and was “rewarded with a smile and a willingness to proceed. Our conversation instantly went from combative to collaborative.”

According to Alturu, research supports the idea that this kind of communication “improves diagnostic accuracy, patients’ adherence to treatment and overall patient satisfaction. Furthermore, improved communication with patients can reduce physicians’ job-related stress, burnout, and litigation risk.”

But you may be wondering: does that mean we have to funny? No, says Atluru. At least not on purpose. “The goal of medical improv, of course, hasn’t been to train medical professionals to be performers or to be funny with patients—at least not yet. Still, improv’s fundamental principles—honesty and spontaneity, to name two—can naturally produce humor,” she said.

Check out the article – “What Improv Can Teach Tomorrow’s Doctors” – and let us know what you think. Can this way of being more present help doctors connect with patients?

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