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Theatre meets patient communication

A U interdisciplinary research team receives a federal grant to investigate the value and impact of the arts in medicine.

A group of interdisciplinary researchers from the arts and medicine at the University of Utah is among a select group to receive federal grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts for their work investigating the value and impact of the arts, either as individual components of the U.S. arts ecology or as they interact with each other and with other domains of American life.

“I believe that a public university exists to improve the lives of the community it serves,” said Michael L. Good, senior vice president for Health Sciences, CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine. “Fostering a campus culture of collaboration between the arts and health is essential to our success. This generous support from the NEA validates and supports our efforts to expand interdisciplinary research, teaching, clinical care and community engagement on the important role the arts play in healing, recovery and wellness.”

These researchers, led by Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell from the College of Fine Arts’ Department of Theatre and Gretchen Case from the School of Medicine’s program in Medical Ethics and Humanities, have developed a unique, theatre-based approach to helping health care providers, trainees and students develop and practice the skills they need to communicate with patients, families and care teams, especially when approaching difficult conversations, called Coached Rehearsal Techniques for Interpersonal Communication Skills (CRiTICS).

“The value of the arts on culture has been long understood,” said John W. Scheib, associate vice president for the Arts at the University of Utah and dean of the College of Fine Arts. “And explorations like these are helping us to understand how artistic practices and creative thinking can have powerful benefits outside of galleries and theatres and in ways that profoundly shape our healing.”

CRiTICS uses professional coaches trained in theatre and performance to guide learners through the rehearsal of a difficult conversation scenario, offering individualized, constructive feedback not only on what a learner says but also on how they communicate nonverbally. The funds from National Endowment of the Arts will allow the research team to assess its effectiveness using objective measures in a large-scale, randomized controlled trial. Results of this trial will offer insights for improved assessment of communication skills, which are notoriously difficult to measure productively.

“No one wants to hear bad news and no one wants to give it, either, but health care professionals have to do it every day,” said Cheek-O’Donnell.

“Providers at all levels of training deserve innovative support to communicate effectively and compassionately in challenging medical settings,” said Case.

This project was conceived and planned with the support of Jeffrey R. Botkin and the Utah Center for Excellence in ELSI Research, and the enthusiastic backing of the Department of Theatre, the College of Fine Arts, the program in Medical Ethics and Humanities and the Division of General Internal Medicine.

National Endowment for the Arts Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter announced 15 awards totaling $724,000 to support research projects that investigate the value and impact of the arts. For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, go to