University of Wisconsin
School of Medicine and Public Health

Amy Zelenski | Medical Education Research on Empathy and Improvisation

Research Focus

Dr. Amy ZelenskiResearch by Amy Zelenski, PhD focuses on teaching physicians how to engage in empathic behaviors with their patients, learners, and interprofessional colleagues, and how increased skill in empathic behavior can increase the quality of patient care and decrease healthcare provider burnout and personal distress.

Improvisational Theater for Scientists (Improv4Scientists)

Improvisers are experts in storytelling, spontaneity, and using observation skills to adjust to their audiences and team members accordingly. Among other skills, this 6-week course will teach participants how to:

  • effectively communicate your work to different audiences
  • adjust your behavior in real time to respond to audience feedback
  • manipulate your vocal and physical presence to communicate more effectively.

To enroll:

  • Students: This course is offered every Spring. You can find course information in the Student My Course Guide under Medicine 710.
  • Community Members: Please email to enroll. The cost is $225.

Improvisational Theater for Health Professionals (Improv4Health Professionals)

Based on the Watson/Northwestern Medical Improv Curriculum and work from the Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook Medical School; this six-week class will teach students how to:

  • Effectively communicate with patients, peers, team members, and supervisors.
  • Listen closely
  • Imagine the perspective of others
  • Respond authentically to the emotions of others
  • Unlock creativity and spontaneity even in moments of stress
  • Identify tools and techniques that promote effective team communication and respect.
  • Recognize barriers to effective communication among team members.
  • Describe both the negative and positive attributes of both the team as a whole and the individuals involved.
  • Formulate a plan for improvements of the team in future collaborative scenarios
  • Assess the attributes needed in a productive team

To enroll:

  • Students: This course is offered every Fall. You can find course information in the Student My Course Guide under Medicine 710.
  • Practicing Providers: Please email to enroll. The cost is $225.

Custom-Designed Sessions Available Upon Request

Dr. Zelenski has conducted tailored sessions for groups in Madison, Wisconsin and beyond, and is happy to work with groups and individuals to design a session based on your organization's goals. Partnering organizations have included:

  • St. Catherine’s University
  • Public Health Madison and Dane County
  • Graduate Women in Science – University of Wisconsin, Madison Chapter
  • Midwest Society of Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry
  • Upper Midwest Invasive Species Conference

Shared Decision Making with Best Case / Worst Case

Dr. Zelenski conducts training on shared decision-making and of the Best Case / Worst Case framework. She works closely with Drs. Gretchen Schwarze and Toby Campbell. You can find Best Case / Worst Case resources at the links below:

Team Members

Dr. Amy Zelenski and Clare HadenClare Haden, MFA—Haden (pictured at right, next to Dr. Zelenski) earned her MFA in Acting from UW-Madison and currently serves as the Oral Communication Specialist at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. She has worked as a professional actor, voice and speech coach, and teaching artist.

Funding Support

National Endowment for the Arts;
Title:The Impact of Improvisational Theatre on Empathy
The goal of this work is to investigate the effects of an interprofessional improvisational theater course on the empathic abilities of health professions students.


  • Podcast episode: "Can You Hear Me Now?" featuring Alan Alda. The Emmy-winning actor and star of television's M*A*S*H* teaches doctors and scientists to communicate more effectively and wrote the book “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”


Contact Us

To reach Dr. Zelenski, email or call 608-263-7358.