Using Improv to Improve Health Care

Using Improv to Improve Health Care

By Benjamin Gleisser

A funny thing happened to Debra Gerardi, BS’84, BSN’87, JD’92, on her way to a career in helping health care organizations find ways to improve patient care.

In 1994, she was working as a nursing director at the UCLA Medical Center when she reconnected with her love of comedy.

“The office manager kept trying to get me to try out for plays and commercials,” Gerardi says. “She saw an ad in the paper for improv classes at the Upfront Comedy Theater and when we went to check it out, they invited us to see a free show.

I was amazed as I watched the Second City actors onstage — I couldn’t believe they didn’t have a script. And what they were doing looked like so much fun! So I started studying there, and began performing on weekends as part of a troupe. My teachers were Jeff Michalski and Jane Morris, who started the Etc. Theater at Second City in Chicago, and we had guest directors, including Ryan Stiles (Whose Line Is It Anyway?).”

Though she loves performing, she didn’t quit her day job. Today, Gerardi — nurse, attorney, documentary filmmaker and comedian — is president and chief creative officer of Emerging Healthcare Communities (EHCCO). The Half Moon Bay, Calif., company provides coaching and conflict services for health care businesses.

Humor comes in handy when dealing with serious issues such as burnout among overworked staff, leaders who struggle with competing demands, and poor communication within a department, Gerardi says.

“I’ve developed exercises based on hundreds of improv exercises that are designed to help teams work well together,” she says. “Basically, the exercises help people to be in the present, to listen openly and to respond to what’s happening, rather than react to what they’re imagining is happening.”

A graduate and now leadership team member of the Hudson Institute of Coaching, Gerardi founded EHCCO in 2009, and her client list includes Massachusetts General Hospital, UCLA and Stanford Medical Center.

At EHCCO, she gave herself the title “chief creative officer” because “the essence of what I do is creative. It’s about creating what’s possible in a given situation. I go into organizations where people feel stuck, or have experienced chronic conflicts for 20 to 30 years, and help them by generating a creative space.”

Basically, when parties in a health care organization have a dispute that can’t easily be settled, or when morale in a department is sinking and there’s no bottom in sight, management will call Gerardi for help. The object of her work is to convene conversations among staff members that help everyone to develop shared agreements and be better communicators.

Gerardi says her work is important, because “conflicts among colleagues are dangerous. They can lead to medical errors that can affect patient safety, and when that issue arises, it can then create an environment of shame and fear.”

In addition, her interest in filmmaking led her to produce an educational documentary featuring a health-law partnership among Georgia State University’s College of Law, Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Gerardi spoke and demonstrated her skills at a special workshop in September in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Creighton’s Werner Institute, ranked among the top 15 best dispute resolution programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

The Werner Institute — which operates within the Creighton University School of Law — counts 443 master’s degree and certificate graduates, and offers a variety of dual-degree programs, including with Creighton’s MS and doctorate in nursing.

“It was wonderful to be back around the campus, and see the growth and excitement of faculty, staff and students that Werner has trained,” Gerardi says, reflecting on her visit. “It was very heartwarming. And I’m excited about the new joint-degree program between the Werner Institute and the College of Nursing. It will be a big step to train nurses and nurse leaders in the kind of conflict resolution skills they’ll need to manage any situation they’ll be facing.”

Gerardi named her comedic mentors: Steve Martin, Gene Wilder, Robin Williams and Carol Burnett. “They’re able to engage you at a personal, deeper emotional level,” she says.

At Creighton, she gives credit to longtime nursing professors Beth Furlong, PhD, JD’00, and Linda Lazure, PhD. Furlong helped develop and was the first director of Creighton’s accelerated nursing program. Lazure was the first associate dean for the College of Nursing’s Office of Student Affairs. Both recently retired.

“They expanded my thinking of what nurses could do,” she says. “What they taught about the policy-making process has become part of my focus when it comes to working with educators and community health leaders.”