Medical Improv: What Is It and How Can It Help Health Professionals?

Nov 30, 2020

When I tell people I practice medical improv, I immediately receive a quizzical look and a reference to the popular 1990s TV show “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” No, I’m not teaching health care professionals how to be funny. Rather, what I’ve learned as an improvisor for the past seven years has changed how I teach communication skills in my coaching practice.

Medical improv is the adaptation of improvisational theater principles and training techniques to improve communication, cognition and teamwork in the field of medicine. It teaches you to quickly build trust, connect with others, work collaboratively in diverse teams, and feel more comfortable with uncertainty and change.

Many health care professionals say that their ability to “read” and respond to their patients, clients and co-workers is central to their daily work. Even before this challenging time of COVID-19, we were becoming increasingly dependent on technology, working in multidisciplinary teams, and expected to deliver exemplary patient-centered care. Effective communication is critical to a trusting and therapeutic relationship with patients, an increase in patient satisfaction, better health outcomes, fewer medical errors and reduced health care costs.

So, how can medical improv improve communication skills? 

  • Low risk. Improvisational theater games and exercises enable you to sharpen your communication skills in a low-risk environment. One of the tenets of improvisation is that there is no failure, only opportunity. In fact, improvisors celebrate failure as it often leads to a higher level of creativity.
  • Improved empathy. Medical improv has also been attributed to teaching one of the most highly valued skills of the 21st century – empathy. Empathy, the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and to understand that person’s thoughts and feelings, helps promote cooperation and unity rather than conflict and isolation.
  • Listening to understand. The foundational skill for improvisors (as well as for effective communicators) is listening. We have a tendency (due to our physiology) to start planning our responses to our communication partners before they have even finished communicating to us. We generally listen to respond, not to understand. Improv games and exercises help slow down our listening process so we listen more empathetically and pick up “gifts” or “offers” that are present in the conversation. This allows us to carry the conversation forward and often find more depth in the conversation.
  • Yes, and. Another tenet of improvisation is to always say, “yes, and …,” and never refuse a “gift” your client or co-worker gives you. “Yes, and...” does not necessarily mean agreement; “yes” is acceptance of an idea that was contributed, and the “and” allows you to build on that contribution. It builds trust, connection and a partnership. The ability to connect with one another – your patients, clients, co-workers or consumers – will give you a competitive advantage in your career.
  • Fun. Lastly, but certainly not least, medical improv is an outlet that provides fun and laughter. Ample research demonstrates that when we laugh, our bodies produce endorphins and dopamine. This translates to an enjoyable learning process, which makes the learning “stickier,” and the impact greater for the learners.

Ultimately, medical improv provides the training to sense, feel and connect with one another; work productively in groups; and build relationships to solve problems together. It can help you become a better communicator and get better results with your patients, clients and anyone with whom you communicate.

I recently led a medical improv session at Dairy MAX’s 2020 #DairyAmazing Symposium, where health and nutrition professionals learn the latest on dairy nutrition, sustainability and more. Connect with Dairy MAX to get more of these insights in your inbox and hear about other upcoming events.