Calvin Kai Ku may not be a physician, but he has spent a large part of the last seven years working in hospitals to make sick patients feel better.
Ku is a medical clown – a trained professional who aims to improve the physical and mental well-being of hospital patients through entertainment. Using theatrics, music, jokes and magic tricks, medical clowns help to reduce anxiety among patients and their families, which helps them cope with illnesses or injuries. They connect with patients of all ages in varying settings including patient rooms, intensive care units, and emergency departments, as well as in hospital hallways, waiting rooms and elevators.
“When patients and their families go into hospitals there are a lot of unknowns and that may put them in a certain state that may make them feel uncomfortable,” Ku explained. “So we try to break the ice. We like to make the patients feel comfortable in the environment and give them an opportunity to play.”
Ku, who is the director of the Medical Clown Project in San Francisco, recently visited the UCF College of Medicine to spread awareness on medical clowning among students. He was invited by Dr. Olga Karasik, associate director of the medical school’s internal medicine residency program. She learned medical clowning while in medical school in Israel and hopes to introduce the art to UCF.
During his visit, Ku walked around the campus talking to med students, sharing his experiences working in hospitals with children and dementia patients. He entertained the students with jokes, magic tricks and broke out his ukulele to engage first-year medical student Meagan Acevedo in an impromptu duet performance of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”
“This is awesome,” Acevedo said. “I really enjoy working with kids, so I am all for this.”
Medical clowning is more than fun and games. Dr. Karasik explained because it provides a sense of relief to patients
and families, as well as improves patient outcomes.
“On the physiological level, laughter has been shown to help reduce stress and pain, as well as boost the body’s immune system,” she said. “Similar to studied effects of laughter, we believe that clowning can help providers achieve a deeper sense of connection with patients.”
The College of Medicine hopes to study whether medical clowning may also improve the well-being of healthcare providers who practice it.
“There is some literature about the benefits of medical clowning for patients, especially in the pediatric population,” Dr. Karasik said. “Not much has been studied about the effects of clowning on the clown him or herself, and that’s where we would like to get involved.”
Dr. Kelli King-Morris, associate program director for internal medicine, is collaborating with Dr. Karasik on the project.
“One of the big efforts of the medical community is to decrease physician burnout and to promote wellness in our residents,” Dr. King-Morris said. “We’re hoping that if our students acquire these skills early enough in their career, these skills will become second nature when they become practicing physicians. And perhaps by doing so they will become more resilient themselves and have a higher job satisfaction.”
Dr. Karasik and her team are collaborating with Ku and other national experts in the field who have built an infrastructure in their home institutions to target specific areas where clowning can be introduced.
“We hope to encounter enthusiasm in the medical arts by those just entering their medical careers,” Dr. Karasik said. “Creating a medical clown interest group in the medical school will be the first step. Our vision is to eventually have medical clowning training available to interested medical students as part of the curriculum.”
In addition, Dr. Karasik hopes to collaborate with Nemours Children’s Hospital to introduce medical clowns as part of the care teams and says she is inspired by the support and enthusiasm her team has encountered from everyone they have met with so far.