I am the artistic director of the theatre company Clod Ensemble, alongside musician Paul Clark. Fifteen years ago I started the Performing Medicine programme, which uses methods and ideas from the arts to train healthcare professionals – doctors, medical students, nurses, physiotherapists, managerial and support staff, and more.
I studied drama at Manchester University in the late 1980s and did a course with a brilliant teacher called Paul Heritage, exploring what theatre had to offer in settings and communities outside traditional arts venues or theatres. Manchester University has a very strong tradition in this area, which I believe is still going strong. I went on to study movement and physical theatre, learning about the expressive potential of the body. So later, when I found myself spending time in hospitals with friends, I realised how important the non-verbal communication skills of the staff – or lack of them – were to my experience of care. I was surprised to learn that healthcare professionals had very little training in that area. That was when I came up with the idea of Performing Medicine.
I believe that the arts can offer both practical skills and new perspectives to healthcare. We work with a range of associate artists who are specialists in their fields, bringing a range of techniques that help healthcare professionals to nurture skills essential to good care. Many of these skills – such as self-care and stress management, verbal and non-verbal communication, teamwork and leadership – are not simply innate, but can be improved with practice. Our approach breaks down care into tangible skills, which can then be rehearsed and practised through practical exercises. We are not encouraging medics to “act” – but rather for them to be authentic, more at ease with themselves, to be equipped to meet the considerable demands of the job, to be more effective clinicians.
Our Art of Healthcare programme – which has run in London and Cardiff and is launching in Salford this month – is a series of events and workshops bringing medics, scientists, artists and cultural thinkers to reflect on and share ideas about the human body and wellbeing, and how healthcare is practised. These events are open to everyone and available for free to healthcare professionals. The Art of Healthcare programme offers the opportunity to develop or refresh skills that are directly applicable to clinical practice, and to be part of a conversation about how the arts can contribute to good healthcare.
Our workshops can help staff manage the day-to-day realities of working at the frontline of the NHS. For instance, our wellbeing and self-care workshop explores ways to revitalise life at work and build resilience. Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between the wellbeing of staff and the outcomes and experiences of patients – so in our programme we focus on strategies for self-care that make working life easier and more enjoyable, allowing healthcare professionals to be more to meet the considerable physical and emotional demands of working in healthcare.
Equally, communication skills are essential both between healthcare professionals and their patients, but also between colleagues. Breakdowns in communication between healthcare professionals can be incredibly costly to the NHS as well as very upsetting for everyone involved. In our Make Yourself Heard workshop, a leading voice coach will guide participants through practical exercises to help to have better conversations with patients and colleagues, by having more control over not just what you say, but how you say it – focusing on tone, volume, pace and pitch.
The visual arts also have lots to offer healthcare professionals. A workshop led by artist Eleanor Crook will give participants the chance to sculpt the anatomy of the head and neck in wax, in an innovative approach to exploring anatomical structures such as tendons, veins and skin. Additionally, photography can offer new ways of seeing and understanding the body, health and illness – a practical workshop with artist Liz Orton will give participants the chance to think critically about these themes and bring a new perspective.
Through our work, we hope to create spaces for dialogue between disciplines, encouraging people to have a deeper appreciation of their own flesh and bones, and inspiring them to reimagine the place of medicine in our culture now and in the future.