Interprofessional Improv: Using Theater Techniques to Teach Health Professions Students Empathy in Teams

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Academic Medicine





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Problem: Health professionals need to learn how to relate to one another to ensure high-quality patient care and to create collaborative and supportive teams in the clinical environment. One method for addressing both of these goals is teaching empathy during professional training to foster connection and commonality across differences. The authors describe a pilot improvisational theater (improv) course and present the preliminary outcomes showing its impact on interprofessional empathy. Approach: In 2016–2017, the authors piloted a 15-hour course to teach interprofessional empathy to health professions students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison using improv techniques. The authors used a convergent mixed-methods design to evaluate the course’s impact on interprofessional empathy. Students enrolled in the course (intervention group, n = 45) and a comparison group (n = 41) completed 2 validated empathy questionnaires (Interpersonal Reactivity Index [IRI], Consultative and Relational Empathy [CARE] measure) and a facial expression recognition task to measure empathy in the pre- and postintervention periods. Differences were examined using paired t tests. Semistructured interviews were conducted with 8 course participants to gain a deeper understanding of the course’s effects. Outcomes: The intervention group’s mean scores on 5 CARE items improved significantly: ease, care, explain, help, and plan. On the IRI, personal distress levels decreased significantly in both the intervention and comparison groups. In the interviews, students who took the class reported a positive impact on their interprofessional relationships and on their ability to think on their feet. They also reported improv influenced other areas of their lives, including patient care and interactions with people outside their work life. Next Steps: The authors have continued to offer the course. They aim to conduct a randomized controlled study with medical students and test durability by measuring empathy again 3–6 months following the intervention.


Medical Education | Theatre and Performance Studies



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