Why there's always time for laughter in medicine

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

I was having a bad day. Every email I opened seemed to contain the opposite of what I hoped to read. I was feeling an overuse injury creep up in my knee. I hit a pot hole that nearly swallowed my car whole and sloshed a hot cup of coffee all over my shirt.

Then it happened. A moment after I'd wordlessly ushered my two kids into a crowded, holiday-week karate class, my five-year-old insightfully said to the four-year-old, "I think Mommy's malfunctioning."

I was still wet, un-caffeinated and burdened with more problems than I could possibly solve that day, but I laughed. Fellow headache-ridden parents laughed. The mood of the room collectively improved. There was a happiness in the air akin to what I imagine it'd feel like if they suddenly started handing out free adult beverages to karate parents.

I wholeheartedly believe the adage that laughter is the best medicine, even when the circumstances are grim. Humor, particularly the self-deprecating kind, happens to be part of my DNA--and thank goodness.

I'll give you an example. If you've ever lost a patient or loved one to a serious illness, you know how upsetting it can be to have your last memories of that person being of them looking sick. Someone very close to me died of cancer six years ago, and the last day I saw him in the hospital, he was almost unrecognizable. The moment I stepped into the room, he looked at me and said, fairly accurately, "I look like Shrek, don't I?"

To this day, I can't help but smile when I think of that moment, even though it was one of the most painful of my life.

Now, I'm not suggesting that doctors begin teasing their terminally ill patients that they resemble cartoon ogres, but I do urge you to simply make room for humor in your practice. In her column in The Boston Globe this week, Suzanne Koven, a primary care internist at Massachusetts General Hospital, makes a similar argument.

"Incorporating humor into my own medical practice was not easy, initially. I feared transgressing boundaries, being inappropriate, not being taken seriously--especially as a young doctor," she wrote. "As the years have passed, I've told more jokes to fewer patients--the same patients who tell me jokes in return," she continued. "I still sometimes underestimate the value of humor, though," she wrote, recounting an appointment when she declined to pause to hear a patient's joke. Rather than being focused so intently on the patient's medical condition, Koven wrote, "Maybe the most healing thing I could have done for her right then was to let her hit me with the punch line."

This story reminds me of another comment my son shared once, when I asked whether his teacher had seen his "eyebrow trick," where he comically raises just one. Sadly, to me at least, the answer was no. "There's no time for silliness in kindergarten," he told me.

I will avoid digressing into my opinion of that notion, and just say that I understand that when you've got a substantial amount of material to cover, it doesn't always seem productive to indulge in making funny faces or hearing lengthy knock-knock jokes with no discernible punch line (which is probably why I'm sometimes not as productive as I could be).

But even in a busy medical practice, where you're treating sick patients, dealing with enormous administrative challenges, struggling to keep your doors open or all of the above, there's always time for a little silliness.

As this recent article from HealthCentral points out, there are numerous ways laughter benefits physicians and patients alike, from beating stress, easing pain and improving one's immune function to strengthening the doctor-patient relationship and the ability to think more clearly.

That said, humor doesn't come naturally to everyone. As Koven noted, there are also risks. How do you invite some funny into your practice without crossing professional boundaries? As always, share your thoughts in the comments. If you feel like it, tell us a joke! - Deb (@PracticeMgt)