In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

October 9, 2014

Improvising Their Way to Becoming Better Colleagues and Caregivers

By In the Loop

Medical Improv classes teach participants how to respond to cues from patients and colleagues, and adapt accordingly. Johanna Rian walked into the classroom at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Education Center with a plan in place for a course on narrative healing. But as she began laying out the course materials, that plan was blown out of the water. "I went in with a plan, which was to start with a piece of poetry," she says. "But when one of the attendees saw the poem he immediately said, 'I'm not going to like this at all.'"

Undeterred, Rian drew from her improvisational training to come up with a new direction, one she says may have been better than the original. "Fifteen minutes into the course, I had a room full of people, and we were off on a completely improvised agenda, and it was hugely successful," she says. "I was really happy that I'd gotten that new direction from that one attendee, which was that I needed to be creative."

It's the kind of improvisation Rian, coordinator of the Dolores Jean Lavins Center for Humanities in Medicine at Mayo Clinic, and co-conspirator Gene Dankbar, Systems and Procedures, are trying to teach others at Mayo through a series of monthly workshops called Med City Medical Improv.  "We're just a fledgling organization right now, trying to build some interest in using improv skills here at Mayo Clinic," Dankbar says. "We had our second session on Tuesday night. We had six participants besides Jo and myself, and we had a great time."

The sessions include "basic theater exercises" designed to help teach "the art of improvisation" while also giving participants a better understanding of how improvisational skills can be used in a workplace setting to improve communication skills, listening, conflict resolution and team building. Not to mention the ability to "think on your feet" and be creative in times of distress (like during presentations … or maybe that's just us).

Though they're only two sessions in, Rian says the feedback has reinforced that she and Dankbar are on the right track. Like, "Communication is so important in medicine, and I think improv training is a useful part of communication training"; improv is "fun and helpful in stress management"; and "patients expect a plan immediately, even when things aren't clear … improv training helps with that." Rian says she also hopes it will help cut down on burnout. "It's a group activity that lets you really share something with a fellow improviser, because you create something together," she says. "And that can be a very sustaining activity."

The workshops are open to all Mayo Clinic staff and students, and are held on the first Tuesday of each month from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Geffen Auditorium in Rochester.

To learn more, check out the Humanities in Medicine's intranet site or send an email to Then, improvise with us by sharing your comments and sharing this story with others via the In the Loop blog social media tools.

Tags: Cancer Education Center, Center for Humanities in Medicine, Gene Dankbar, Innovation, Johanna Rian, Practice story

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