The Case for Medical Improv: Using Theatre Techniques to Improve Patient Care

Jan 18, 2018

Professor Katie Watson is a classic polymath - a case of “How many hats can one person wear well?”  She’s a lawyer - having clerked in the federal judiciary and practiced public interest law; she’s an ethicist who has completed fellowships in clinical medical ethics and medical humanities; and… she’s also an adjunct faculty member at Chicago’s Second City theater’s comedy training center.

All of that doesn’t event count her day job as a professor of law, ethics, and humanities at Northwestern University.  And because she needs to keep her sense of humor - she practices what she teaches, regularly performing improv comedy. 

Watson found time in that busy schedule to present the most recent Medical Humanities Lecture at the Medical College of Wisconsin. The lecture was called, "Medical Improv: Theater Techniques to Improve Communication and Teamwork in Medicine," and at the cornerstone of her teaching is the fusing of improv and medicine.

"Medical improv is the adaptation of theatrical improvisation, skills and insights and using what's so essential about that and what overlaps with medicine to help train clinicians be better clinicians," Watson explains. 

She adds that reticence is not unusual, but also not necessary. "When patients might not like the idea of improv in medicine, the first thing I'd say is that shows a lack of understanding of how much of medicine is spontaneous," Watson counters. "It doesn't mean it's unprepared. It means it's formatted to be just for you." 

She continues, "That's what you want, right, when we talk about individualized medicine? It's not from a cookbook, it's not a cookie cutter. So physicians need to be trained, and nurses and all other clinicians, to not just respond to what they think is going to happen, but to respond to what is actually happening."

Watson advocates for "deep listening" techniques, including paying attention to non-verbal cues and collateral factors in addition to the content of a patient's concerns. She also says that doctors shouldn't be afraid to incorporate instinct in how to proceed.

"In improv, theatrically, we say 'follow the unexpected, follow the unusual.' When there's something that's just different in what was said or done, usually that's the interesting place to go," says Watson. "And often that's true in medicine also."