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Empathy Through Art: Using Stories to Fuel Change in Health Delivery [Part 2/3] – The Interview

We spoke with Chris Bailey, Coordinator, Online Communications at World Health Organization (WHO) to get an insight into the world of arts, health and communication as he sees it. We spoke following the success of the first ever staff-run play “The Pot” at the WHO headquarters for World Health Day 2018. The play, written by Mac Rogers and originally performed by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts was produced and performed by the WHO staff from all ranks, working together to put a human face to health. As the Coordinator for Online Communications, Chris has years of experience in knowledge management and performing arts, a powerful combination of knowledge and skill that has influenced his work. Chris is also the current Vice Chair and head of the Production Subcommittee for Geneva English Drama Society (GEDS). He’s previously worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to build a knowledge management program in Africa and is notably an influential advocate for the arts and health.

Needless to say, we were inspired. Here’s a rundown of our conversation.

How did your career begin with WHO?

I was recruited by Dr. Tim Evans, whom I worked with at Rockefeller foundation; at the time he was serving as Director of the Health Equity Theme. When Tim moved to WHO as the Assistant Director General he came to me and said: “You’ve done a lot of innovative things and created a reputation, how would you like a real challenge.” That was it!

You had a history in the theatre prior to joining the WHO - how did you find yourself working in global health?

I can tell you the short version because the long version is complicated. I started as an actor and theatre director. When I got married and had babies, I realized that babies need to be clothed and fed and that requires stable income. I didn’t immediately leave theatre but I knew I needed a degree. So I went to night school and got a masters degree in Library and Information Science. I later started work with Rockefeller to build a knowledge management system in Africa, then ended up working with WHO as well and helped develop a strategy for their knowledge management programme.

How does your background tie into what you do?

So, about 5-6 y ago, there was some downsizing at WHO, 30% of staff were let go including me. To add on to my job disappearing, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had to rebuild my life. I changed my lifestyle; started exercising and changed the way I ate. I had allowed my spirit to atrophy. You see, in addition to the cancer, one of the things that had been lying dormant and eating away at me was not being able to do theatre. In the midst of all this I rediscovered my passion for theatre. I auditioned for a play at GEDS and got the lead role! One thing led to the other and I am now the Vice Chair and head of the Production Subcommittee. Shortly after that I landed my current job at WHO. Where it connects back to health is a couple years ago I began realizing that I had two parallel lives in WHO and theatre. I became interested in seeing how i could combine the two. I started looking at how I could integrate health work into performance.

How do you see the arts and health fitting together?

The problem with that is that even though evidence and data are essential for better decision making, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest it does nothing to change people's previously held opinions or behaviors. So if your goal is to change a population's behavior as opposed to policy, then evidence, facts and information is not enough. The way to change people's behavior is through empathy, through story and essentially through arts. And I think that's an area that many disciplines out there, especially in the private sector such as in advertising and marketing discovered decades ago. It’s only now that public health is awakening to the fact that rather than seeing a story as the opposite of evidence, we can see it as a tool of getting the evidence based message out there in a way that can actually promote more healthy behaviors.

Why is theatre so effective for talking about health?

Any advice about how these two worlds can come together more often? I personally feel, based on my experience that theater has a visceral healing quality, but how can we measure that? How can we actually see that pattern? I don't know the answer to that question. However, it might be interesting if we could develop a network between these two worlds and start building a database of measurable practices and case studies out there. We could study the patterns that might emerge and see what we can begin to generalize with greater confidence. That would be interesting to me. Also, I think it would help to have a marketplace where people can share approaches, even specific pieces of theater and plays that they’ve worked on in different contexts for different areas of health-a resource that people could draw on. That would be very interesting as well.

We are inspired by Chris’s call to build a network between these worlds. Through Global Health Disrupted, our aim is to bring together people who are already using creative strategies to drive change. We would love you to join the movement We hope you enjoyed our interview with Chris as much as we did. Visit to learn more about his work at WHO and to book a ticket for the next play he’s directed “Frankenstein” if you’ll be in Geneva in October! What questions do you wish we’d asked? Post a comment below!

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