Medicine is serious business. But for a growing number of patients, a trip to the hospital may include a laugh with a clown.

Medical clowns — health-care workers who dress up and act like clowns to help make medical procedures and hospital stays less stressful — can be found around the world. The growing field relies on the age-old performance art of clowning to help lift the strain that can pervade the treatment of all-too-serious health concerns.

Clinical evidence suggests the laughter medical clowns create is better than some medication. In 2008, for example, researchers deployed clowns to children preparing for anesthesia and outpatient surgery at an Israeli hospital.

One group of kids met with a medical clown for 20 to 30 minutes. The other received midazolam, a sedative. The group of children who had yukked it up with clowns before they were given anesthesia showed the same level of anxiety as those in a control group who took the tranquilizer as they entered the operating room, and significantly less anxiety than children who were sedated with an anesthesia mask placed on their faces.

Other studies suggest clowns are beneficial for kids with autism spectrum disorders, burns that require stressful bandage changes, and other medical challenges. Even adults with dementia and serious illness show gains in psychological well-being when clowns perform in a medical setting.

The field has been around for decades. Its most famous advocate is Hunter “Patch” Adams, who has been clowning in health-care settings since the 1970s and who was portrayed by Robin Williams in a popular 1998 film.

But Adams isn’t its only wacky practitioner. In a recent TED talk, Matthew A. Wilson tells stories of his (absurdly) touching experiences with cancer patients and medical staff, and the insights joking during uncertain, stressful moments have brought him, patients and their families.

“My work has taught me how to actually be present,” he says. “How to breathe in a room with a person in pain. How to connect and build trust, no matter the age, ability or illness.”

No joking — hospitals, ORs and clinics could use a few lessons in lightening up. Check out the talk at bit.ly/clowndoctors.