China’s Clown Doctors Bring Joy to Children’s Hospitals

China's healthcare system embraces an unusual Swiss program
An elderly woman in a wheelchair poses with two people dressed up as clowns and clown doctors


Over the past 20 years, Switzerland’s clown doctors have made their way to six of China’s top hospitals. And no, this isn’t a bad joke about the Swiss healthcare system. These “doctors” are literally clowns. They wear bright red foam noses, paint their faces in bright colors and adorn comically huge pairs of shoes with one goal in mind: to bring joy to children across China.

Every day, professional clowns pay a visit to one of six hospitals in Hong Kong, performing for as many as 10,000 young patients every year. And though they are not medical doctors, they still play an important role. According to a recent study, they reduce stress for many hospital visitors, and create a more positive environment for children in particular.

The clown doctors’ tasks include performing magic tricks for patients and their families and speaking with children in the pediatric center or the child oncology department. In many cases, the children staying in the hospital are facing painful and sometimes terrifying medical procedures. Clown doctors hope to alleviate some of that stress and bring laughter into healthcare.

Trend Started in Switzerland

While this practice is an emerging healthcare trend in China, it actually has roots in Swiss culture and medicine. The Theodora Foundation, a Switzerland-based organization, was founded in 1993 to help children cope with hospital visits. The organization’s founders, Jan and André Poulie, were inspired by their mother, Theodora Poulie. She adored children and had a vibrant sense of humor that Jan and André Poulie wanted to memorialize. They started with just two clown doctors in a pediatric department at the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland. Today, the practice has caught on in a wide range of countries, from Italy to Turkey.

A clown doctor smiles at a young child who is staying at a hospital


It’s not unusual for healthcare trends to pass from one country to another. In an ever-globalizing world, nations share more traditions with each other than ever before. Since all people, regardless of nationality, strive to live healthier, fuller lives, we often see successful healthcare practices of one culture spread quickly to another.

Over the past few decades, Switzerland has earned a reputation for having one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Their culture highly values happiness. And many Swiss doctors believe that a stress-free, happy life is the key to great health. With their cheery personalities and bubbly jokes, clown doctors fit perfectly into this worldview. They remind healthcare providers that their patients are still people who need to relax and laugh after a long day like everyone else.

China Embraces Healthcare Reform

And it makes sense that China would be one of the first countries to fully embrace clown doctors in their medical facilities. That’s because China’s new Healthy China 2020 program seeks to reform the entire country’s healthcare system using both conventional methods (such as improved education about nutrition in schools) and unconventional ones (such as clown doctors). The government’s goal is to modernize China’s healthcare system, especially in urban areas where stress levels are high.

An outside view of Queen Elizabeth hospital, which hires clown doctors to interact with patients


As China’s dense urban areas continue to grow, common stressors like traffic, air pollution, poor diet and lack of exercise may worsen the overall health of its citizens. To prevent this China’s healthcare professionals are embracing a holistic approach to medicine. They’re looking beyond medications, surgeries and other treatments that only lessen the symptoms of  illness. Instead, they’re focusing on preventive techniques that will help Chinese citizens live healthier, happier lives.

In this sense, clown doctors are just one very small piece of larger healthcare reform, in that they represent a global shift in our understanding of what it means to be in good health. Medical professionals in many countries, including China, France, Switzerland, Spain and the United States, are learning that happiness (and laughter) are connected to good physical health. Thus, in the future, we may see more programs like these adopted on a global scale, especially as our cultural understanding of healthcare shifts.

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