Grant funds research at the intersection of improv, health care, and the impacts of homelessness

Two medical students engage interact as Elizabeth Byland and Aaron Anderson look on

A team of researchers from the schools of the Arts and Medicine recently received a $25,000 grant to study the use of improvisational techniques to decrease homelessness. The Applied Improv to Impact Homelessness program has two intertwined goals: to strengthen self-advocacy and problem-solving skills among individuals impacted by homelessness; and reduce the stigma of, and engender advocacy about, homelessness among health care practitioners.

The research project is led by principal investigators Elizabeth Byland, instructor and head of improv performance in the VCUarts Department of Theatre, and Alan Dow, MD, MHSA, interim division chief of hospital medicine and assistant vice president of health sciences for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Care. They are joined by Cherie Edwards, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and the Office of Assessment, Evaluation, and Scholarship.

Byland, Dow and Edwards plan to lead community-based sessions in transitional housing settings. Individuals impacted by homelessness and medical students, residents, and faculty will collaborate in exercises that explore the challenges facing individuals impacted by homelessness. Individuals impacted by homelessness will develop strategies for negotiating the barriers to housing while health care practitioners and students will realize their role in supporting people to overcome challenges to stable housing. As these groups collectively learn together, they will develop insights into each other and themselves as they work toward eliminating housing instability and its impact on health and wellbeing.

“Improv allows us to practice effective verbal and non-verbal communication through exercises that prioritize listening, acceptance, collaboration, and making confident and positive choices that move us forward,” Byland says. “Improv cultivates a community of trust and compassion while celebrating the ‘we,’ before taking care of the ‘me.’

“Whether it’s giving a future or current health care worker the confidence they need to advocate for underserved populations to reduce health disparities, or empowering those moving through homelessness with the tools they need for a successful transition, I firmly believe that improv has the power to change lives.”

The project marks the latest example of collaborative arts and health research at VCU. The Standardized Patient Program, developed by Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor of theatre, uses a theatre-based approach to teach empathy to medical students and health care professionals. Byland and Anderson have also used improv techniques to help medical students practice empathy, communication and problem-solving skills.

“I am so excited and incredibly grateful to receive this opportunity,” Byland says. “None of it would be possible without the leadership and guidance from Dr. Alan Dow and unwavering support from Dr. Aaron Anderson. I am beyond proud to work at a university that values the importance of innovation and collaboration in both health care and the arts.”

The 18-month grant is one of eight awarded by the Association of American Medical Colleges to U.S.-based member medical schools and teaching hospitals. Grantees will design new methodology, or enhance existing methodology, to evaluate the impact of existing integrative arts and humanities programs or curricula across the developmental spectrum, including undergraduate, graduate, continuing medical education, and interprofessional settings. Priority was given to programs that serve veterans and underrepresented minorities. This work is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Image: Medical students practice improvisation techniques while Elizabeth Byland, center, and Aaron Anderson, Ph.D., right, observe.