Patient Communication

The Power of Humor

There is a lot of evidence and belief that humor can positively affect health outcomes. In the medical environment when patients are anxious and fearful, humor can reduce anxiety. In fact it is thought that the very purpose of humor is to counteract the negatives that are thrown our way in day-to-day life, preventing people from descending into doom and gloom.  Therefore, humor may be an important part of medical care. Through my personal experience and observation of others, I have seen that humor can be a strongly positive influence when skillfully applied. But unfortunately it can add fuel to the fire when dealing with an unhappy patient. The wise use of humor requires sensitivity, perception, and judicious application. These are skills that can be learned and practiced. A funny story may be a big hit preoperatively, but if problems occur, the patient’s perception may be that the surgeon was not taking the problem seriously.

Humor presents itself daily in hand surgery practice. These are some of the simple rules I have learned to follow before getting light hearted.

  • Know the patient. It is not a good idea to exchange jokes with the patient in the early time frame of your care. There is no guideline, but it is important that there is some trust between the doctor and patient before sharing a chuckle. Having said that, depending on the problem, humor can break the ice for some patients on their first visit. Know your audience.
  • Don’t brush off a bad outcome with humor. Surgeons tend to underestimate the serious impact and concern of the patient that even a minor problem can cause. Separate the serious evaluation and care of the medical problem from the humor.
  • Jokes of a sexual nature should not be used.
  • Bathroom humor is not easily applied to hand surgery, although the prostate is fair game.

Some simple ones I have used:

  • When a mother and adult female child are in the office together and the mother is the patient, ask if they are sisters. The mother will smile. If the daughter is the patient don’t ask!
  • When a husband and wife are in the office together, offer to write a script for no house cleaning to the patient. It works for both genders.
  • If a husband and wife are in the office together and the wife is the patient with a minor problem, the husband will usually tell you something about his own health experience. If it is not too serious, look at the wife and say, “It’s always about him.” She will smile. If either have a serious problem, don’t make this joke.
  • When doing the preoperative marking, sometimes older male patients will think it is trivial and superfluous. This is a perfect introduction to say, “This is so we don’t take out your prostate gland.” This usually gets a chuckle.

You may have developed many of your own stories and jokes. Share them with your colleagues.

When the doctor and the patient share a bit of humor, they have made a connection that says I have reached you and I trust you. Even a smile means you have connected. This works in both directions. Some people do not have a sense of humor. If the patient is ultra-serious, humor will not work and there may always be a virtual wall between the patient and doctor. If your quip falls flat, give it up.

The doctor however can learn and practice humor. It will make your life more enjoyable, make your office a more pleasant place for everyone, and will help your patients.

Article written by:

Dr. McCabe attended Medical School at the University of Toronto, followed by a Plastics Residency at Western University with Dr. R. McFarlane. He completed Fellowship training with Jim Murray in Toronto and Harold Kleinert in Louisville. Before returning to Toronto in 2012 he worked in Louisville for 20 years. He recently led the Toronto team to perform Canada's first hand transplant. Dr. McCabe has an interest in clinical research especially elucidating the cause of carpal tunnel syndrome.

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