News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Israel sets up course in clowning to help patients recover

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 26 October 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:922
  1. Judy Siegel-Itzkovich
  1. Jerusalem

    Israel's hospitals haven't had much to smile about recently. But soon there will be pranks, jokes, and laughs as 40 graduates of the country's first ever “medical clowning” course reach the wards.

    Inspired by the film Patch Adams, which told the true story of a doctor from Virginia who thought that humour was a better healer than any drug, the course aims to speed patients' recovery by making them laugh.

    It opened last week at Assaf Harofe Hospital in Tzrifin, near Tel Aviv. The 80 hour, six month course is presently training doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, actors, a school principal, and even a bank clerk in the art of clowning. The five top graduates will receive scholarships and jobs at the Assaf Harofe Hospital, financed by a voluntary organisation called Joy in the Heart.

    The lecturers include doctors, magicians, and an expert on community theatre from Tel Aviv University who studied medical clowning at New York's Big Apple Circus. One of the leading lecturers is Shlomi Algosi, Israel's first professional medical clown, who recalls being lonely and afraid when as a child he was hospitalised for months after contracting polio.

    Dr Shai Pintov, an Assaf Harofe paediatrician who launched the course with Algosi after seeing Patch Adams, says research on patients has confirmed the notion that “laughter is the best medicine.” Clown therapy, he says, is a unique way to treat patients and speed their recovery.

    Some performing clowns who applied for the course withdrew when they realised that graduates would not simply be performing before audiences of patients. Instead students are learning techniques in which the patient is the “star” and clowns are integrated into the medical team.

    Children with serious burns who are afraid to move because of the pain often forget about it when they reach to grab bubbles wafting into the air. Patients trying out their wheelchairs for the first time laugh when Algosi attaches a “new driver” sign to them. A child traumatised just by seeing a stethoscope gets used to it by applying a toy version to the clown's chest.

    Patients tell the clown their secrets and fears and sometimes join a “plot” against hospital staff by planting a big black rubber spider under the blanket to scare a nurse or doctor, said Algosi. Semicomatose patients of all ages have made contact with their surroundings after being stimulated by clowning.

    The course lecturers are teaching would be clowns to communicate not only with sick children but also adult patients. “I find I can 'get to' adults faster than children, who are generally more reticent or suspicious,” said Algosi. “With adults all I have to do is break down the initial barrier by, for example, making a balloon animal for them to give to their child or grandchild. They 'melt' and I'm able to work with them.”

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