The Medicine of Laughter

I was at a doctors’ meeting recently, at which the Tropfest 2012 finalist short film How Many More Doctors Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb was screened.

This somewhat edgier sequel to the 2006 film How Many Doctors Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb shows seven minutes of unprofessional GP conduct, spiced by per rectum jokes.

Looking around at my 30 or so colleagues, I was interested to observe that one of the most gentle, empathic and sensitive doctors I know was among those laughing the hardest. She later explained: “Laughing at misfortune is the only way I can keep caring. I’d fill up with misery otherwise … and be no good to anyone.”

A propensity for black humour has long been associated with medical students and doctors alike, and it is not hard to understand why.

Dealing with human vulnerability, illness, grief and pain on a daily basis can be stressful. Add in time pressure, bureaucratic frustrations and the expectation to remain caring, empathic and professional at all times, and something’s got to give.

We all know that having supportive family and friends, regular time off and interests outside medicine are important for our well-being and sustainability, but are these enough?

Do we also need additional ways of processing and then letting go of the absorbed grief we accumulate?

Some choose to debrief by yelling, ranting, moralising or whingeing. Others use humour in one of its many forms: dark, absurd, slapstick, satirical or otherwise. This may sometimes involve poking fun at our more intense colleagues who may, in turn, complain about those they believe treat serious issues insensitively and frivolously. Horses for courses.

It is true though, that using humour is inherently risky, particularly for doctors. Even if the intent is innocent, an attempt to lighten the mood at the wrong time or place can seriously backfire. What is funny to one person might be deeply offensive to another.

My advice: go ahead and laugh your cares away, spreading the sunshine of your humour if you will — but always treat patients with respect, tread carefully around those ever-so-serious colleagues and refrain from sharing any potentially inflammatory jokes via social media.

Personally, I like to think that I owe a good deal of my resilience to spending as much time as I can on the funny side of the fence. Writing a Last Word column each month has helped me to do just that.

I now find myself on the lookout for encounters that I can subsequently write about in a light-hearted fashion. The more I look, the more I find. Medicine may be a serious business but it is also seriously funny.

I have pages of ideas, most of which will never be submitted for publication. It doesn’t matter though. I’ve discovered that the simple act of recording such stories in a humorous style, even without sharing them with others, has been great for my mental health.

It is not insensitivity. It is not schadenfreude. It is a way of reducing the emotional burden of my job and allowing me to go to work smiling — ready to give the support and empathy my patients and colleagues deserve.

I enjoyed watching the Tropfest film. While I far prefer witty satire to predictable scatological humour, there is something about stories of inserted foreign objects that elicits a chuckle along with the cringe.


First published in Australian Doctor on the 15th June, 2012 On the Medicine of Laughter