It’s a Laughing Matter

If giggles,grins and guffaws aren't bouncing off your walls, your practice could be in serious trouble.

By Julie Sturgeon | Remarks


Mike Moore’s sonar has picked up an alarming trend in the medical world: physicians are afraid to laugh in the office.

Yet as a professional speaker, teacher, and humorist, the Toronto-based consultant still admits to a few butterflies in his stomach when he agreed to address a medical conference whose audience consisted of 150 palliative care workers. “I was reluctant because these people deal with death and dying. And here I’m walking in with the topic ‘Light Up with Laughter,'” he says. “But within 10 minutes, my fears and anxieties about the audience were neutralized because they were hungry for the relief and therapy that humor can give.”

Part of this squeamishness is understandable. There’s emotional safety in hiding behind a quiet medical mystique and terminology. And, many physicians are afraid they will be perceived as less competent if they’re caught playing on the job. Yet this profession has more of a rationale for having fun at work because fun and play contribute positively to patients’ healing, points out Matt Weinstein, the emperor/founder of Playfair, a consulting firm in Berkeley, California and the author of Managing to Have Fun (Fireside, 1997). For starters, laughter increases T-cell production, which fights and bolsters the immune system.

Ken Davis, MD, has practiced family medicine at Sadler Clinic in Conroe, Texas, for 26 years. He seized on the results of a study released in March 2005 by Dr. Michael Miller, the director of preventive cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The studies show that heart attack victims who watch just 30 minutes a day of videos they deem funny improve more quickly and with less medication, fewer complications, and fewer subsequent heart attacks. Davis now makes that a routine part of his discharge orders for heart attack patients.

“There is medical research that shows doctors who employ humor in the office with their patients and at the bedside get sued less often,” he says. Davis has no reason to question those findings. “It’s risk management—people feel more comfortable with you, see you as more human,” he says.

He shares the laugh with Mark Pettus, MD, a nephrologist who serves as a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and practices in Charleston, South Carolina. Pettus, too, buys into health reasons like the fact that laughing lowers cortisol levels, an excellent antidote to the “flight or fight” mode so many patients find themselves in when they are under stress. Still, he’s very cognizant of the stereotype of physicians as a picture of seriousness; office feedback a few years ago revealed that his informal style of humor left some of his staff wondering if Pettus was more interested in being a stand-up comedian than a doctor.

“I do need to be careful about being too funny, but there can be a balance,” he says.

Physicians who find that magic equilibrium stand to gain far more than they realize. “Humor is a social glue because it promotes bonding with people. And if there’s one profession that needs that sense of bonding, it’s one that deals with people in very difficult, frightening, and insecure times,” Moore says. Take the family practitioner with Providence Hospital Systems in Waco, Texas, who impressed John Christensen, the playground director (a.k.a. president) of Charthouse Learning in Minneapolis—best known as the publishers of FISH! This doctor hugs his patients, gets down on his knees to examine a child’s ear, and takes the time to explain the anatomy behind an earache.

“We’re talking about a single mother who drives 50 miles to see this doctor, and because he’s not in her health-care system, she pays cash,” Christensen says.

Amusing myths

The foundation to perking up the mood lies in grasping what humor is—and isn’t—in a professional setting. According to Joel Goodman, the founder and director of The Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, New York, too many leaders think humor in the workplace is childish. Instead, consider it childlike, which is a very mature, adult coping mechanism.



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