Using humor in clinical practice


A patient in Seattle reported drinking alcohol on only two occasions during the year: when it rains – and when it doesn’t.

Various benefits of humor have been studied as part of the treatment modality. Humor can be a powerful resource, but it remains a complex process, and its proper use in clinical practice requires careful consideration. Despite having demonstrated the ability to relieve stress in patients and among medical professionals,1 humor has not gained widespread acceptance.

Dr. Gurprit S. Lamba, Bayridge Hospital, Lynn, Mass.

Dr. Gurprit S. Lamba

Humor has been shown to help build relationships, and establish trust and support for favorable health outcomes. It increases patients’ satisfaction, decreases medical malpractice claims, and has the potential to reduce cultural differences and hierarchy between patients and health care practitioners.2 The Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education values interpersonal and communication skills as being among the core competencies to be imparted to physicians in training.

Dr. Mandeep Rana, Boston University

Dr. Mandeep Rana

Currently, there is no standard methodology for using humor in practice, as each clinical setting and circumstance can vary widely. Whichever setting you find yourself in, however, you might keep in mind certain strategies for incorporating humor into your daily practice.1-3

Explore the benefits of humor in your clinical practice

Consider humor an integral part of your professionalism. Initiate it where you have assessed it is appropriate.

Understand your audience

Assess your patients’ capability of understanding or appreciating your humor. Do not force it on patients. Be respectful of their perspectives and mindful of cultural differences.

Reciprocate humor

If patients take the humor route to lighten what might be a tense encounter, respond to their attempt and join them in bringing levity into the mix.

Use humor to support patients

Humor can take many forms. It can be subtle and does not always require a punchline. Patients may use it to express concerns or even fear. Health care providers can use it as support and to demonstrate caring, reflecting anxieties likely displayed or revealed by patients.


Avoid certain forms of humor

Avoid using self-disparaging or gallows humor. Humor between health care providers and patients should never be sarcastic, ethnic, or sexist.

Pay attention to how your patients use humor

Explore the possible meanings of your patients’ attempts at humor and what concerns they might be seeking to express. Use your findings to discuss deeper issues.

Incorporate humor into your teaching

Students, too, can benefit from the therapeutic potential of humor. Use humor to dispel or lessen your students’ fears or anxieties. It can help in the learning process and memory. Creating a cheery ambience can help lessen nervousness, ease coping, and reduce burnout.


1. South Med J. 2003 Dec;96(12):1257-61.

2. J Am Board Fam Med. 2018 Mar-Apr;31(2):270-8.

3. Health Expect. 2014 Jun;17(3):332-44.

Dr. Lamba is a psychiatrist and medical director at Bayridge Hospital in Lynn, Mass. Dr. Rana is assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University.

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