Interview with Jon Hallberg, MD, FAAFP, Hippocrates Cafe Creator and University of Minnesota Center for the Art of Medicine Creative Director
“There are times, like now, when the arts may be the most helpful way to make sense of what we are experiencing. In that sense, the arts really are a form of medicine.”-Jon Hallberg, MD, FAAFP, from Hippocrates Cafe: Reflections on the Pandemic
This article originally appeared in the winter 2022 edition of Minnesota Family Physician magazine.
This past October, Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians member and University of Minnesota Center for the Art of Medicine Creative Director Jon Hallberg, MD, FAAFP, received an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy for his role in the Twin Cities Public Television/University of Minnesota Medical School collaboration Hippocrates Cafe: Reflections on the Pandemic. Hallberg was creator and co-host of the hour-long television program that reflected on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic through music, art, animation, photography, story, poetry and dance.
Hippocrates Cafe: Reflections on the Pandemic was picked up nationally by American Public Television in April 2020 and had been shown in 25 states as of August 2021. It’s the first show in a four-part series, exploring a variety of topics.
The series is modeled after Hallberg’s own creation, Hippocrates Cafe, which has used professional actors and musicians to explore health care topics through story and song, with Hallberg providing narration throughout. Since fall 2009, Hippocrates Cafe has performed 115 shows in eight states in a variety of venues and settings. The last in-person, live show was performed March 13, 2020, and aptly titled, “In the Time of Plague.”
We caught up with Hallberg to learn more about the evolution of Hippocrates Cafe, the Center for the Art of Medicine’s partnership with Twin Cities Public Television and what’s ahead.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WINNING AN EMMY?
It turned out to be a bucket list item that was never on my bucket list. I love film, and I love the visual arts. And to be even tangentially related to that and be recognized with an award, it’s really gratifying. It’s not even a punctuation point to my career, it’s more like a highlighting. I’m really inspired to do more and better.
HOW DID THE PARTNERSHIP WITH TWIN CITIES PUBLIC TELEVISION COME ABOUT?
One of the last live, in-person Hippocrates Cafe shows was called “A Celebration of Life,” held at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis for The Mortality Project. After that show, Tom Olson, University of Minnesota Physicians board member, came up to me with tears in his eyes and said that it was one of the most meaningful things he had ever seen. He encouraged me to reach out to TPT [Twin Cities Public Television] and wondered if there was a way to take the show and film it. He really thought it could have legs.
Then the pandemic hit. Tim Schacker, MD, Vice Dean for Research at the University of Minnesota Medical School, whom I report to for the Center for the Art of Medicine, asked, “What can you do to buoy the spirits of our frontline workers?” I knew the CEO and President of TPT, Sylvia Strobel. She was a former college classmate of mine and had been at MPR [Minnesota Public Radio]. Following Tom’s urging, I sent her an email and things moved from there.
It’s important to also note that the partnership with TPT has had strong support from University of Minnesota Medical School Dean Jakub Tolar, MD, PhD.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO TRANSITION FROM THE LIVE, IN-PERSON FORMAT TO TV?
When we did our first televised show, it was revelatory how much more diversity we could have in a show, both in terms of actors/musicians and in the types of pieces we could do (like a filmed piece, a motion poem, an interview, the list goes on). For years, I thought Hippocrates Cafe could be a podcast, as it was a made-for-radio style show. We did one pilot a few years ago with MPR, but it didn’t go anywhere.
Over time, people mentioned that they liked watching people read and watching the musicians play. So, I realized that maybe this could be converted to a format that is visual, like a television show.
The thing that makes [Hippocrates Cafe] so unique is the parts, the pieces. We take a complicated medical topic but come at it from all kinds of different angles. That’s kind of the DNA of the original live show that made it into the new one.
They’re a little bit like variety shows but in a thoughtful way. We want them to be largely non-prescriptive. We’re not telling people what to do. We just want them to reflect on things and to create a safe, beautiful, calming space to let the music, the visual pieces and the stories wash over you.
WHAT WAS YOUR ROLE IN THE EMMY-WINNING SHOW AND TPT PARTNERSHIP?
I was creator and co-host.
In the past, for the live, in-person shows, I used to pick all the pieces, contact the artists for permissions, coordinate actors, write the narration—basically, curate the whole show.
For the pandemic show that aired on TPT, I still did a lot of the curating and narration writing. I worked with the nonprofit Motion Poems to produce the animated piece that was in the show. I contacted Condé Nast to get permission to use The New Yorker piece. And I worked with TPT producer Brittany Shrimpton on the rest. She was incredible to work with and really understands the visual medium.
Where we’re at now (with current and future shows for TPT), it’s highly collaborative. We have a curatorial team, which includes my three colleagues and associate directors from the Center for the Art of Medicine, Anthony Williams, MD, Ben Trappey, MD, and Maren Olson, MD, MPH, MEd, and center coordinator Jenny Magner (who has helped a lot behind the scenes).
For our next show on race, University of Minnesota Medical School faculty Tseganesh Selameab, MD, who is in charge of the Becoming a Doctor curriculum for third-year medical students, has also been involved in curating and narration writing and will be my co-host.
I’m still heavily involved in writing the narration/script and work closely with the TPT producer.
WHAT SHOWS ARE COMING UP IN THE TPT SERIES?
We’re in the midst of post-production on the next show on race, which will premiere in late March or April. Future shows will be on the topics of aging and disability, with expected airdates in fall 2022 and winter 2023.
I think we’re hitting our stride with this next show on race. We’re making tweaks and improvements…this is going to be a very powerful, beautiful show.
HOW CAN WE WATCH THE SERIES?
Hippocrates Cafe: Reflections on the Pandemic is available now and can be streamed on the TPT website at www.tpt.org/hippocrates-cafe-reflections-on-the-pandemic.
Future shows will air on TPT and other public television stations and should be available to stream at www.tpt.org as well as on YouTube.
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO BRING ART AND MEDICINE TOGETHER?
We cannot lose sight of what we call the “art of medicine”—the interest in the human condition, storytelling, being curious, being empathetic.
I also believe that integration of art into our healing spaces is really important. That’s why I’ve become such an advocate for good design, light and art in clinics and hospitals. I think it helps patients, caregivers and staff alike.
Working on this TPT program is one more step in that direction [of bringing art and medicine together]: using media as a way to amplify our stories to a much broader population. Micro-medicine is practicing one-on-one; we’re caring for one patient at a time. With art, we can suddenly be reaching many people at once.
In addition to his work on the TPT/University of Minnesota Medical School collaboration, Hallberg continues to see patients daily in clinic and serves in a variety of leadership roles. He is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School; medical director of the award-winning, innovative University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) Mill City Clinic; director of philanthropy for the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health; creative director for the University of Minnesota Center for the Art of Medicine and crescent medical director for M Physicians, which includes overseeing M Physicians clinics and working with health systems across the state and on entrepreneurial/innovative ideas.
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Post author: Emie Buege, communications