There’s a place for humor in medicine


They say laughter is the best medicine. I really hope that’s true, because I tend to use a lot of it at work. There are two ways it can go: One, it can open up the appointment, setting the patient and physician more at ease and facilitating open and honest dialogue. It makes the visit enjoyable, maybe even fun, and can boost satisfaction. Or, it can seem like the doctor isn’t taking the patient’s health seriously and it can break down the social dynamic. This second option is generally less desirable.

Of course, there’s a time and a place for humor. When discussing a difficult diagnosis, abuse, or other intense topics, making light of the situation could be devastating. And yet, an empathic statement, really expressing support, can be bolstered by a little quip to brighten the patient’s day. Nothing at the expense of the person suffering, and nothing to make the conversation all about you (you selfish, egocentric narcissist). When in doubt, play it safe and be serious.

Jokes and humor also help in the business side of things. A recent article points out the benefits of humor in working groups and organizations. The article encourages self-deprecating humor and cautions not to jokingly put down employees. Ironically, the whole article is written to make fun of the “businessperson” reading it. Scientifically, the author mentions that laughter releases oxytocin and dopamine, and that the brain doesn’t tend to remember boring things (which makes me sad that people will forget about me shortly).  If you think about it, aren’t you better able to recall things that happened when you were more emotionally charged — whether that’s terribly sad, or ecstatically happy? Maybe patients will remember their medical plans better if they’re laughing along with you describing that “I’ve never met a formin* that didn’t help diabetes.”

Patch Adams, MD is one of the best-known physicians to use humor in healing. He focuses more on silliness to reach pure joy, nourishing the soul as much as the body. There is something about the contrast, when silliness uproots the expectation of seriousness, that is more powerful than pure humor alone. I think that’s why humor can be so powerful in the doctor’s office; because the expectation is all business, seriousness, and authority. Humor can break down those rigid roles of “patient” and “doctor,” or “team leader” and “team member.” It can level the playing field and align people on the same side, working toward a shared goal. For me and my patients, that goal is simple: live forever, or die trying.

* Metformin is a medication for diabetes. Jokes are way funnier when you explain them.

Jordan Knox is a family medicine resident. This article originally appeared in Family Medicine Vital Signs.

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