Doc jokes on social media may have real-world implications

What do you call a doctor who finishes last in his medical school class?

Answer: Doctor.

The joke, one of several about physicians and healthcare circulated on Facebook, got many likes--the equivalent of a thumbs up--on the social media site. Although jokes at the expense of doctors and hospitals aren't new, researchers who looked at the popularity of the one-liners say a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research provides insight into the use of social networking sites for research related to health and medicine.

In the light-hearted study, Dartmouth researchers analyzed a cross-section of 33,326 Facebook users who allowed the team to monitor what they posted over a six-month period. During that time frame, users posted 263 doctor-related jokes. The research team measured the joke's success by whether responses included an electronic laugh, such as "LOL" or "laugh out loud," and how many likes it received. The team identified 156 unique doctor jokes that got such a response.

Although doctor jokes were popular, the punch line that received the most Facebook likes was one that involved a doctor, lawyer and priest and the lawyer was the butt of the joke.

The study is among the first to examine social networking site conversation in relation to health and medicine. "Social networking sites, such as Facebook, have become immensely popular in recent years and present a unique opportunity for researchers to eavesdrop on the collective conversation of current societal issues," Matthew Davis of the Dartmouth Institute of Health Policy & Clinical Practice said in a study announcement.

And though this first study has to do with humor, it may have bigger implications. "This is one of the first attempts to pull information from Facebook conversations and do something with it," Davis told USA Today. "It's trying to learn something from human behavior and being able to compare and contrast that behavior in the virtual space and connect that with real life."

The healthcare industry could use the social media site to find out what people are discussing online so healthcare leaders could ask better questions and improve patient engagement, Susannah Fox, a researcher at the Pew Research Center with an emphasis on health, technology and social media, told the publication. She referred to a 2004 Pew study that examined political engagement based on campaign jokes.

"There is a parallel with clinicians and hospitals and other healthcare entities to listen to the online conversation, whether it is people sharing jokes, having praise for a certain institution or complaints," she said. "These are vehicles for people to share opinion and to build community whether it's about politics or healthcare."

To learn more:
- here's the study
- read the announcement
- check out the USA Today piece