Is Gallows humor still appropriate?

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One of the first medical phrases I ever learned was “gallows humor,” which Dictionary.com defines as “humor that deals with a serious, frightening, or painful subject in a light or satirical manner.” I learned this when I was an undergraduate student from a final year college student who had already been accepted into medical school: “These are jokes that only people in the health field would find. funny. Later in my studies, he and others also told me not to feel bad about these jokes, as they were a coping strategy for all of us who work in the health professions. The implication of this is that this is the social norm – and therefore appropriate and, indeed, expected behavior.

But much of this humor shouldn’t be taken as prescriptive or appropriate. This week, having come out early in Pediatrics, is an article by Dr Robert Dudas, Dr Michael Ryan and Dr Susan Bannister of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Calgary, which discusses the role of humor, particularly when we teach and model the practice of medicine (10.1542 / peds.2021-053044). This article is part of an ongoing series on medical education from the Council on Medical Student Education in Pediatrics (COMSEP) featured in Pediatrics. The title of the article will grab your attention: “Pediatrician, Resident, and Medical Student Visit Clinic: The Role of Humor in Clinical Education.”

Drs. Dudas, Ryan and Bannister discuss the different ways humor can be useful in medical education and team building. They also discuss the different ways that humor can cross the line of being inappropriate, even hurtful or harmful.

It’s also important to remember that, like with other things, humor is in the eye of the beholder. Whether something is humorous depends on the situation – and the individual. What a participant may find humorous, a resident or student may find as a micro-aggression or an insult. And it also extends to our patients and other relationships.

I encourage everyone, whether you are working with interns or not, to read this article, as the descriptions of the different styles of humor and theories about humor will help everyone create a welcoming and non-toxic atmosphere.

Copyright © 2021 American Academy of Pediatrics


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