Grants and Research Committee Research Annotation, October 2011

By Lou Clark

Happy Fall, ASPE Members!

The offering this month looks at “medical improv,” one approach educators are taking to enhance student communication skills by integrating the arts, specifically improvisational theater, into traditional medical school curriculum via an elective humanities course.

Serious Play: Teaching Medical Skills with Improvisational Theater Techniques by Katie Watson, JD.

The author of this month’s article annotation is an attorney and Assistant Professor of Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Katie Watson also has over 10 years experience as an improvisational performer, and is an adjunct faculty member of the Second City Training Center.

For those unfamiliar with Second City, the Chicago-based company is the premiere training ground for improvisational theater in the United States. Notable alums include Alan Arkin, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey. Perhaps most importantly, Second City is responsible for nearly all of the best Saturday Night Live skits.

The article details the author’s experience of teaching improvisation to a total of 99 medical students since 2002 in a course entitled Playing Doctor.


Author(s):  Watson, K.

Year:   2011

Article:   Serious Play: Teaching Medical Skills with Improvisational Theater Techniques

Publication:   Academic Medicine 86 (2011), 1260-1265.

Annotation:     The author highlights the similarity between medical interviews and improvisational theater in that neither are scripted. Therefore, the technique of “medical improv” is of benefit, as it trains students to prepare for the unexpected. The article describes the seminar in which improvisation exercises are used to enhance and teach communication skills to medical studentsThis is a perspective paper discussing advantages and disadvantages of this curricular innovation which, it claims, is the only “recurring” course of its kind in medical school curriculum. The course resulted from discussions with a colleague who was writing a book about clinical decision-making, prompting Watson to realize that many skills utilized by physicians in medical encounters are also common to improvisation. Comfort with performing under uncertain conditions, simultaneous honesty and spontaneity, timely reactions and adaptations to new information and behaviors, and remaining professional under pressure while “thinking in front of an audience,” are all skills required in both professions. Watson maintains that medical improv teaches the use of effective teamwork, and how to give and receive feedback, both important skills that contribute to the professionalism of physicians.

Evaluation: Ninety-nine medical students have taken Watson’s Playing Doctor course: 87 students completed course evaluations from 2002-2010 that reflect their experiences. Results indicate that 100% of the students agreed the class helped them to respond ‘in the moment,’ that the teacher promoted a risk-taking environment, and that students felt supported by their peers. Ninety six percent felt the class helped them become more observant and 94% asserted that it helped them become better listeners. Watson states there have been no formal evaluations to reinforce the student data gathered in the course evaluation, though students would recommend the class to other medical students.

She does reference another study (Boesen, et al) which shows data via SP assessment supporting the improvement of pharmacy student communication skills following 12 hours of improv training.

Watson acknowledges that the adoption of an improv course into a medical school curriculum poses potential challenges, including student opposition to humanities courses in general as well as hiring or identifying qualified faculty members to teach the course. If trained medical school faculty are not readily available, it suggests using improv theater specialists to co-teach the course.

I recommend this article to SP educators seeking innovative and fun elective offerings to supplement their existing communication skills curriculum. It could also benefit SP trainers, as many of the techniques discussed in this article provide fun ways to enhance or inspire authentic SP portrayals. I found this article interesting and helpful as someone who uses actor training techniques to train SPs, and would enjoy hearing from other ASPE Members interested in reading more about ‘Playing Doctor.’

What are your thoughts on this article?  Join the discussion below!


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