This interview with Dr Peter Spitzer, Australia's best know Clown Doctor and co-founder of the Humor Foundation Charity, was done in 2002. Dr Switzer sadly passed away on 9 August 2014. As a tribute to honour his extraordinary life and wonderful work, my interview with him is being re-published. Diann Rodgers-Healey
Dr Peter Spitzer MB BS, FACRRM
Chairman, Medical Director Humour Foundation
Peter is married with 2 children and has lived and worked in Bowral for the past 22 years. Until recently a 1942 WLA Harley Davidson was also part of the family. For some reason, however, it wasn’t allowed in the bedroom.
As well as working in general/family medicine, he uses acupuncture, hypnosis, counseling, musculo-skeletal medicine and Provocative Therapy.
Peter is the chairman, medical director and a co-founder of the Humour Foundation Charity, which was established, in late 1995. He is involved in selection and training of Clown Doctor hospital-based teams throughout Australia.
He regularly works as Dr Fruit-Loop at Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick and Children’s Hospital at Westmead. His main aim is to infect the wards with laughter and leave his patients in stitches.
He is actively involved in lecturing and conducting workshops on humour in practice to doctors, medical students, nurses and other health-care professionals. He has articles published in the media and medical journals.
Being chosen as an Olympic Torch Bearer was definitely one of the highlights in 2000.
He initiated and travelled with fellow Clown Doctors to East Timor in 2000. The aim was to help children find their smiles again. Along the way medical supplies were distributed. Australian children eagerly helped make “bags of fun” to help lift the spirits of children in East Timor.
In a new initiative, in 2001, he conducted workshops for the Department of Corrective Services in the use of humour in the new maximum security unit in Goulburn NSW.
He was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study the impact of overseas Clown Doctor programs on the health care system. This 3 month study began in April 2002.
“Laughter is the most inexpensive and the most effective wonder drug. Laughter is a universal medicine”
Interview with Dr Peter Spitzer
Can you describe the main aims of the Clown Doctor Program and the criteria needed to be met if one is interested in applying for the Clown Doctor Program.
The Humour Foundation is a charity that was formed in 1997. Its mission statement is “To introduce and promote the health benefits of humour to patients, their families and health care professionals”.
The main “operating arm” of the Foundation is the Clown Doctor
Program and its vision statement is:
“Go in with our hearts open…………………….
Play, with respect……………………………………………
Connect with compassion…………………………….
To uplift the spirit”.
As Clown Doctors of delight we utilise a wide variety of performance techniques to dispense doses of mirth, infect the ward with laughter and leave everyone in stitches.
International research has found both physiological and psychological benefits to patients. Doses of humour help relieve fear and stress and help recovery. The whole hospital community benefits…..patients, families and staff.
Clown Doctors need to be professional performers and we then train them to work in the hospital environment. They have a variety of backgrounds that include clowning, music, mime, theatre, juggling, close-up magic, improvisation etc. At present we have 32 Clown Doctors working around Australia. Interested performers make contact with us and send in their CV.
I understand that Clown Doctors are not Medical Doctors, but professional performers who have additional training to work with sick children in hospitals. Are there any Doctors within the Australian Medical Community who would like to become Clown Doctors or are you the only one?
I am the only medical practitioner who works as a Clown Doctor. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are other doctors out there who would like to be Clown Doctors. They would need performance skills and be prepared accept a pay cut.
We do, however, conduct workshops for doctors in bringing the performance/humour modality into their daily practice. Adding this creative dimension enhances communication, improves the delivery of technology of medicine, reduces stress and burn-out. And it adds a bit of fun into a busy day.
Are tertiary students of medicine and health related areas given the option of learning about Humour in Therapy? Have you encountered difficulties in getting such teaching to be a part of the established teaching curriculum?
I delight in bringing humour workshops to medical/health students. They get excited, they have enthusiasm and the feedback is great. At present this is done in an ad-hoc way and is not an established part of the teaching curriculum. In Melbourne, humour in medicine was available as an elective subject. It was booked out. Yes they need to learn the sciences but this needs to be balanced by the psycho-social. A ‘good’’ doctor will have a balance of both and humour addresses some of this.
How did you become involved in the concept of being a Clown Doctor? What do you find personally and professionally rewarding from being involved in such an initiative?
Jean-Paul Bell is a co-founder of the Foundation and our Creative Director. His background is mime and he is a wonderful performer and a ‘people reader’ and he’s an inspiration for me. I had the good fortune to meet him in London in the 70’s (we shared a squat with an innovative travelling circus troupe) and our friendship has continued since then. Over many years we talked about ‘the art of medicine’. What is it? What’s its place? How do you get it? How do you use it?
Actually he’s the clown who wanted to be a doctor and I’m the doctor who wanted to be a clown.
Both of us have gotten so much from our professions that we had a clear sense of giving something back in a new, innovative and creative way. We didn’t want to go down the business route.
This shaped the birth of the Humour Foundation charity.
For me, the Foundation and being a Clown Doctor engages both the head and the heart. I thrive on the inspiration, the creativity, the challenge, the shifting of boundaries and the human experience this work brings.
Think about it. Clown Doctors in Intensive Care? Clown Doctors in Palliative Care? Yet this is where some of the most heart-felt interactions take place.
At a professional level the challenge is how to incorporate appropriate humour at the coal-face of the health industry.
What impressed you most about your meeting with Dr Patch Adams? Is he one of your Mentors?
I have met Dr Patch Adams a number of times. He is an inspiration and a mentor for me. Patch is considered to be the father of clown doctors -thirty-two years ago he put on a clown nose when he worked in hospital.
He is incredibly focussed, energised and driven to establish America’s first free hospital where patients will be actively participating in the healing journey utilising the full spectrum of the arts and sciences. Philosophically he sees that corporate medicine has killed off the spirit of compassion, and humour and laughter is one of the ways of bringing compassion back into medicine. He makes a clear distinction between a greed model and compassionate model in the provision of health care.
What’s impressed me? The way he has brought heart into the equation.
What would a Clown Doctor from your Program do in a Palliative and or Paediatric Hospital when engaging with patients?
For the answer to this question re-read our vision statement above. There is never a fixed approach because then the Clown Doctor is not in the moment. We use heart/mind/performance skills/improvisation to be with and interact with the patient. So, anything is possible.
We work in partnership with hospital staff. There is someone taking care of the organic part. We clown doctor the spirit – the child within.
What would be the benefits of setting up an international Clown Doctor Program and why has this not happened yet?
I’m not sure that there would be any benefit from an International Clown Doctor Program because of diverse cultural issues. A program that works in one country may not work in another. However there would be benefits from an International Clown Doctor Association. These would include closer links, research, exchange programs etc.
How much support does the Program get from the Australian Medical bodies such as the AMA?
There is curiosity and support from some of the medical bodies. Our main support is from the hospitals, palliative care and nursing home we visit. Support grows and strengthens when health care facilities see us at work and understand our program.
Internationally, clown doctor programs have been operating regularly since 1986. Whilst on a Churchill Fellowship in 2002 to USA, UK and Europe, I undertook a “Study of overseas-based clown doctor programs and their impact on the health care system”. A universal question I put to clown doctor host hospital clinicians and administrators was: “How would it be if for some reason clown doctors couldn’t come to this hospital anymore?” Not possible was the response. They couldn’t imagine the clown doctors not being part of hospital/ward life.
What do you attribute the lack of funding for the Program to? Has there been much research done in Australia about the benefits of your Program and would this be the most significant requirement to warrant funding from government and corporate bodies?
I think we’re like the other charities in Australia. Donations have reduced since Sept 11 2001 and so we struggle.
There is a huge possibility for research but the research dollar is limited and I don’t think this area has high priority.
To get regular and significant government funding (we don’t) we would have to come up with evidence-based research eg clown doctor programs reduce hospital stay by X days or clown doctor programs reduce infection rates or clown doctor programs reduce sick-leave. We don’t have this kind of research information.
And so we rely primarily of private donations and sponsorship from the corporate sector where there is alignment with the nature and spirit of our program.
What advances would you like to see in the Clown Doctor Program in Australia?
I would like to see our Clown Doctor Program advance to more secure funding. This would allow us to be in host-hospitals at least 3 days a week; we could visit more hospitals; we could do more community-based work; we could help people find their smiles again – we have visited East Timor and Afghanistan.
As Victor Borge said:
“Laughter is the shortest distance between 2 people”