Send in the Clowns?
Today is Curious Science Friday.  It’s not crazy, though it is weird, and it is also curiously relevant.  I found a study on clowns!

Vagnoli et al. “Clown doctors as a treatment for preoperative anxiety in children: a randomized, prospective study” Pediatrics, 116(4), 2005.

I’ll have to begin this by stating that I’ve never really liked traditional clowns.  You know, big red nose, whirling bowtie, huge shoes.  I don’t have coulrophobia or anything, I’ve just never really thought they were funny.  But then, I’ve got a very dry sense of humor, so perhaps I just don’t appreciate them. 

However, we all probably know by now that humor has a positive effect on your health.  In day to day life, humor can have a positive effect on your immune system, and in the hospital, humor can be used to help alleviate anxiety and depression in patients.  This study wanted to see if the presence of clowns in the anesthesia induction room helped anxiety in children.  Kids undergoing surgery often suffer anxiety due to fear of separation from their parents, anticipation of pain, and the fear of the hospital surroundings.  The researchers wanted to see whether the presence of clowns helped with the children feeling anxiety. 

They looked at kids between the ages of 5-12, all of them with one parent present, and they checked the change in anxiety from the waiting room to the surgery induction room.  Half of the children were assigned a clown, and half weren’t.  They found that children assigned clowns displayed significantly less anxiety in the anesthesia induction room than those without clowns.  The clowns distracted the kids so they presumably worried less. 

Most of the staff present saw that the clowns worked and found the children with clowns easier to deal with, but most of them also did not want the clowns present, worried that the clowns interfered with preparation for the procedure and that they would disrupt the relationship between the doctor and the patient. 

It’s true that having extra people around can crowd things and the loud noises might distract preparation, but I think personally that happier, less-panicked kids will make up for that.  On the other hand, if people are so worried about the presence of the clowns disrupting the relationship between the doctor and the patient, perhaps the doctors should try humor to both relieve anxiety and foster a good relationship. 

I do wonder, though, if they screened beforehand to make sure the kids liked clowns.  What if a kid panicked?  And a study came out of the University of Sheffield recently stating that children were in fact scared of clown decor in hospitals.  It could be that the paintings are too bright, the faces too mask-like.  Still, perhaps humor should be used, but maybe not clowns.  I personally promote the use of sock-puppets prior to anesthesia.  My brother made me some sock puppets once, and I know seeing those things always relieves my anxiety.  And a doctor with a sock puppet would be REALLY cute.

Vagnoli, L. (2005). Clown Doctors as a Treatment for Preoperative Anxiety in Children: A Randomized, Prospective Study. PEDIATRICS, 116(4), e563-e567. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-0466

7 Responses

  1. Isn’t it bliss?
    Don’t you approve?
    One who keeps tearing around,
    One who can’t move.
    Where are the clowns?

  2. The notion of being “assigned a clown” has me wondering where else clowns may do good. Where else could you assign them?
    Appropriately somber clowns at funerals!
    Clowns at job interviews as part of the panel!
    Clowns at “meet the parents” of significant others moments! At hoity-toity restaurants! “Claude will be your clown this evening. If you’ll follow me…”

  3. A friend I have is a clown doctor. That is, not only a hospital clown, but also a medical doctor.

    The group he belongs to tries not to use a lot of wardrobe and makeup tricks, instead using only the red nose (the group’s name is Medicos Bola Roja, loosely translated as “Red Ball Doctors”).

    They joke, they play, they use faces and look dumb, and for the most part that does the job.

  4. Does your friend ever have a problem with parents or patients not taking him seriously as a doctor? Or is it well known in his area what they do?

  5. hmm interesting. Especially given that my partner is both a doctor, and terrified of clowns 🙂 I guess this wouldn’t work on children who are scared of clowns.

  6. Scicurious:

    He’s a medical doctor with a M.Sc. on Environmental Health… he is taken quite seriously when working.

    And the group he belongs to, when doing clown-stuff, is famous enough on Peru (where they work) to work with Patch Adams on occasion.

    When they go to a community devastated by flooding, for example, you get to see people helping with the cleaning, putting stuff in place and the like AND keeping humor up for everyone else at the same time. It’s like a double responsibility: if people see they are glad to help, happy even if everything seems as in hell, but also working as hard as anyone else… people learn to respect this, and learn to smile even in adverse situations.

  7. I recently met a pediatric clown and my magazine allowed me to profile of him. The result was fascinating, and I think you might find it interesting:

    (Here’s a link to the text without video and images:


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