Funny or Not: Humour in Health Care

Sep 22, 2017
Dr. David Goldbloom

Professor David GoldbloomI’ve been telling jokes since I was 5 years old. It was simply expected of me.

I remember my father waking me up at 11:30 at night if a Marx Brothers movie was on TV after the evening news. He considered comedy part of our basic education. My brother and I would often listen to — and memorize — comedy records. And we were taught that listening to and telling jokes was central to social interaction.

Mine was also a medical family — four generations of physicians — and I learned early that humour can play a role in health care. In my work as a psychiatrist, I use it a lot.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blurting out in the middle of an appointment, “So a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…”

Humour in health care is not about repeating the latest and funniest joke you’ve heard. And there are many times when its use would be totally inappropriate. What you may think is funny can be terribly insulting or even anxiety-provoking for patients.

But if you gauge your audience and tread carefully, humour can help make really difficult encounters much easier.

The reality of our work in health care is that we are often dealing with people who are facing the darkest and most frightening aspects of their physical and mental health. Our job is to ease their burden. If done carefully, humour can be one way to help.

For example, as a psychiatrist I see new patients who come in, naturally apprehensive. They’re afraid of being locked up, or nervous that everything they say will be scrutinized. I always start off by explaining that the purpose of the visit is to find out more about them, to understand the problems they’re facing and to see how I can help. Then I often say I’m going to start with a really tough skill-testing question, which is: “How old are you?”

Professor David Goldbloom as a child, impersonating Groucho MarxI know. It’s not about to garner me a comedy award. But that’s not the point. I find that line — that unexpected and lighthearted quip — breaks the ice and lets new patients feel more comfortable. It’s disarming and defusing — a moment of shared human connection that helps level the physician-patient relationship and makes subsequent, substantive questions easier.

Of course, if humour’s just not your thing, I don’t recommend forcing it or faking it, as it would come across as contrived. There are other ways to put your patients at ease.

But for me — someone who survived middle school by studying my Treasure Chest of Humour joke book every night, who co-wrote and performed a musical in medical school called “The Wizard of Osler,” and who takes part in self-deprecating videos like this one — humour has a welcome home in health care.

Dr. David Goldbloom, PGME’88 (Psychiatry), is Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, psychiatrist and senior medical advisor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). He’s also an author and a really funny guy — don’t miss his stand-up routine November 22 at UofTMed Inside the Issue, the Faculty’s alumni event featuring UofTMed magazine’s upcoming humour issue.


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