Let me introduce you to “clown doctoring”. Greenwich based GP Dr David Wheeler takes a lead on this and yesterday I joined one of his clown workshops aimed at GP trainee doctors.
Dr David Wheeler was introduced to clowning during a sabbatical from work where he was exploring complementary medicines. At first the idea seemed ridiculous to him, but he fell in love with it- not particularly the performing aspect of this alternative profession, rather the impact it had on his GP consultations. Now he facilitates clowning workshops alongside his role as GP Programme Director for Greenwich.
I was apprehensive but fascinated to become a clown. I had interviewed David before the workshop and had learnt his views on how clowning can improve relationships with patients through non-verbal communication and through encouraging emotional authenticity in yourself as a doctor. On stage, a theatre improv clown (different to a circus clown) completely demonstrates to the audience how they are feeling, whether it be joyful and playful or scared and vulnerable. We can take this into our medical practice to show our empathy with patients’ tough situations or bemusement at the variety of bizarre symptoms we tend to see.
Leaning into the discomfort
We started off the day with some exercises, some of which caused a feeling of unease. Maintaining eye contact with a partner for more than 3 minutes felt intrusive; vocalising how we felt whilst exploring random items felt strange.
Our first solo improvisation was daunting. David and Laura (his co-facilitator) sectioned off the stage with rope and we had to enter the arena, turn towards the audience and take our time exploring a large piece of cloth. The aim was not necessarily to make the audience laugh, but to engage with the spectators about how we were feeling. In a professional sphere, especially in medicine, this demonstration of emotions is rarely encouraged as the norm is to resist physical feelings of hunger or sacrifice our own mental state for the sake of our patients. In the clown world however, imperfection is privileged and not something to rage a war against.
Abandoning our medical scripts
Improv of all kinds can help us abandon our medical scripts, and treat each patient as an individual. It was commented by one GP trainee that it felt like a form of mindfulness, of being in the complete moment, enabling us to focus in on that (in some cases small) ailment that is so greatly affecting that patient’s perspective on the world. Many of my colleagues found GP Land boring, say, if someone came in with a cold. Clown improv can make the smallest thing interesting, relatable and playful to work with.
In medicine we are expected to make the uncertain certain on a daily basis. How as human beings do we deal with this? Burnout is so common amongst doctors because the fun has been taken out of our jobs. The consequences of burnout are addiction as a form of numbing, poor mental health and even suicide in todays junior doctors. Many doctors are moving onto pastures new including Australia and NZ and I myself am about to relinquish my licence for a few years whilst I embark on a job working for a Brighton based charity and complete my masters.
A workshop like this may be seen as outrageous to some, and for others perhaps a waste of time. But it takes courage to be a clown. Brené Brown, a personal hero, has told 33 million people the true definition of courage- it originates from the latin word for heart “cour” and means to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. This is what clowns do, what the GP trainees and I did yesterday at David’s workshop, and what I believe all doctors should do as well.
References and further reading
Look out for my video interview of Dr David Wheeler, coming soon!