Belinda Fu, MD

Photo Credit: CAFP

Follow Dr. Fu on Instagram and Twitter at @theimprovdoc.

1. When was the first time you performed improv on stage? What part of that experience do you still carry with you?

The first time I “officially” performed improv on stage was in 2009, in a show at Jet City Improv called, “This Improvised Life”, which was inspired by the NPR program “This American Life”. We had an Ira-Glass-esque host, a theme for the evening, and we improvised stories in the style of what you’d hear on that NPR program – ie, really human stories. What I carry from that experience is a lot of gratitude, and a feeling of awe. At the time I was cast, I had only been studying improv for a year, so I was such a newbie, and very much in awe of my talented castmates, who were all very experienced improvisers. It was my first time being cast in an improv show, so I felt immense gratitude for the director, Ian Schempp, trusting me to rise to the occasion, and for my castmates, who supported, encouraged, and guided me throughout the show. When you’re making up stories out of nothing, mistakes are inevitable, so to have the experience of being supported and saved by a group of people who “have your back”, no matter what — it embodied the power of improv for me, and reinforced my belief in the work and my desire to keep going. In that show, I experienced for the first time that thrilling sensation of discovering and creating stories in real time, with my castmates and the audience. There was such an incredible feeling of trust, and of presence — living in that moment, where everyone in the room is experiencing a revelation at exactly the same time as a story unfolds … it was an amazing sensation, to experience the powerful bonding human experience of live improvised theatre.

2. Such creative journeys often face great challenges and successes. What event or series of events inspired or challenged you personally to pursue your work addressing the need for improvisation in medical training?

I’ve always been interested in communication, particularly in the healthcare context; one of my undergraduate research projects was about the use of medical jargon in patient education materials. And I’ve always integrated the arts in the healthcare world: throughout high school, college, and during medical school, I performed music at nursing homes, retirement homes, and hospitals. But the intersection of improv with medicine for me was (like many things in life) an unexpected circumstance of timing. My original interest in improv theatre was purely for fun and art; I didn’t know there was such a thing as “applied improv” at the time I started taking improv classes in 2007, during my chief resident year. I was still doing performance improv by the time I started my position as faculty in a family medicine residency program, and my improv and medical worlds were separate.

But in 2011, I was diagnosed with vulvar neoplasia. I met with two different gynecologic oncologists, and I had tremendously different experiences in those encounters, because of the differences in communication. The oncologist I ultimately ended up seeing (for the next ten years!) was empathic, present, responsive, and articulate — his communication and humanity were exceptional. I think it’s fairly common for different clinicians to have different “bedside manner” styles, and of course I had learned and taught communication skills in medical education. But because I’d been doing improv for a few years at that point, I experienced these contrasting communication styles through the lens of improvisational theory and practice. The clinician who communicated so empathically and effectively was embodying the skills taught and practiced in improv. So my medical diagnosis was also in some ways a gift, because it led to a “light bulb moment” of seeing connections between improv and medicine, seeing it from both the patient and the physician side. As I continued my work in medical education and in improv, I became more convinced that improv approaches would be powerful, enjoyable, efficient, and effective ways to teach communication skills and empathy in the context of medicine, addressing challenges such as teamwork, burnout, difficult conversations, interprofessional collaborations, and many others. I was extremely fortunate to find a mentor, Prof. Katie Watson, at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, who was already teaching improv to medical students. She generously worked with me to hone my skills, so that we could deepen the understanding and potential of what medical improv could play in medical / clinical education. As my work in medical improv has developed, I’ve become better able to identify the specific elements that made my wonderful oncologist’s communication so compelling, so I can develop improv curricula that give those exact skills to my residents, students, and colleagues.

As a clinician and educator, I’ve felt humbled and empowered by the communication skills that improv has given me. I’m able to build stronger healing relationships with patients, work more effectively on teams, navigate tricky conversations with a more robust toolkit, give more effective feedback, and — perhaps most importantly? — it’s significantly improved my wellbeing and given me a healthier perspective on life. In the last few years, I’ve also had challenging experiences while sitting in the clinic room or hospital as a family member or friend, and these experiences have reinforced the importance of enriching medical communication with the heart and skills of improvisation.

3. How do you blend and balance your work in Improv and in medicine? What’s one piece of advice you can share for those aspiring artist-physicians?

Blending and balancing is an ongoing process. I think of these as three different “buckets” in my life: medicine, performance improv, and medical improv. Although they overlap, they are each distinct activities, and I believe that actively practicing each of them makes me better at all of them. That said, there’s only so many hours in a day! And in my overall list of priorities, family and friends are the most important things of all. (And my dog 🙂 ) So I’ve had to be very clear with myself about priorities and boundaries, and make tough choices about commitments. I can’t do all the things I want to do, and that’s got to be okay. There was a time when I was working full time doing clinical & academic medicine, with a heavy call schedule, then coming home and either working on medical improv or rehearsing and performing improv, and I was just exhausted. It was not sustainable … AND yet it was also absolutely what I needed to do for a while to build a foundation (financial and experiential) upon which I have been able to grow. Since then, my work has been a combination of multiple part-time commitments. I have had to think creatively about how to structure my life, and it’s been challenging — logistically, financially, emotionally, philosophically — because I’m going off the “beaten path” of the “typical” medical professional career. I am always learning more about how to prioritize, make educated decisions, and invest my time and efforts in a long-term plan, with willingness to flex and change with circumstances. It’s challenging, and it’s also exciting and fulfilling.

My advice for aspiring artist-physicians would be to realize that the balance between art and work may not be found within one day, or within one week; it may balance out over months or years. Regardless, any effort put into your art will stay with you; nothing is lost. It just takes time. Plan your finances widely. Spend time really getting to know yourself, your values, and priorities, and make your decisions based on that. Practicing both art and medicine can be exhausting and also invigorating; I’m a better physician and person because I am still doing art. Don’t let go of your art, because it’s who you are.  We can’t “have it all”, but it’s not about having it all, it’s not about being comprehensive. It’s about being selective. Choose that which is most important to you, and your life will become a unique shape that is an artistic creation all your own. Your balance/blend of art and medicine will look different from anybody else’s. Treat your life as the work of art that it is. Okay, that’s more than one piece of advice. 🙂

Photo Credits: Jet City Improv

Photo Credits: Todd Gardiner

Photo Credits: Justin Triemstra