The best medicine: 7 residents recall how humor saved the day

By Kristen Fuller, MD | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published May 3, 2023

Key Takeaways

Humor and laughter are good for one’s health and good for the soul—at least, that’s my motto—and the medical literature agrees. A review in Southern Medical Journal says that humor can be particularly in patient-physician communication, the psychological aspects of patient care, medical education, and as a means of reducing stress in healthcare professionals.[]

Whether it is joking with our colleagues, trying to make a child laugh, exchanging funny stories with patients, or understanding how humor can be used as a defense mechanism, humor can help relieve patients’ anxiety and strengthen the bond and communication channel between patient and physician.

Humor is helpful for us, too. Residency is stressful, and oftentimes humor can lighten the mood, especially during the darkest of days.

We asked medical residents to describe a moment “humor saved the day.” Here's what they had to say. 

Laughing doctors

Jake Jacob, MD: “During a particularly stressful day in residency, my team was caring for a patient with a complicated medical history who had just experienced a sudden change in their condition. The situation was tense, and everyone was feeling the pressure. Suddenly, one of my colleagues made a lighthearted joke that broke the tension and made us all laugh. It provided a much-needed moment of levity and helped to ease the tension in the room. We were able to regroup and refocus on the patient's care with a renewed sense of energy and positivity.”

"This experience taught me the importance of stepping back from stressful situations to find moments of joy and laughter, [and] reinforced the value of teamwork and positive relationships with colleagues in managing stress and providing quality patient care."

Jake Jacob, MD, Baylor College of Medicine

Female doctor smiling at patient

Humor can help relieve patient anxiety

Vignesh Ramachandran, MD: “I remember a time during my residency when I was performing a full-body skin check on a nervous patient. As I was examining his scalp, I noticed a small bald patch. Worried, I asked the patient if he had noticed it before. He immediately became more anxious and worried, thinking the worst. To lighten the mood, I joked, ‘Looks like your hairline is starting to practice social distancing from the rest of your scalp.’ The patient laughed and replied, ‘I guess my hair is taking social distancing very seriously!’"

"The joke helped calm the patient, and the rest of the exam went smoothly with a more relaxed and lighthearted atmosphere."

Vignesh Ramachandran, MD, PGY-3, NYU Dermatology

Young female doctor doing teleconference

Humor can help patients cooperate with medical staff

Cindy Tsui, MD: “A fellow physician had a patient who was a bit challenging in terms of how he talked to and cursed at his doctors and nurses. One day, the attending told him, ‘You’re full of $h*t!’ The patient, who had previously been using foul language at the healthcare workers, did not expect to hear that from the doctor, who then clarified that his CT scan showed severe constipation."

"The patient laughed and became more pleasant after that!"

Cindy Tsui, MD

Other inspiring moments with patients

  • Kelechi Acholonu, DO: “One time during residency, a patient presented with her child. The treatment team was interviewing the woman, and her small child wanted to be involved. When the medical team asked the mother if she had any trouble with constipation or gas, her child responded ‘My mommy farts all the time!’ The entire medical team laughed, which became my day's highlight.”

  • Gregory Benn, MD: “I remember when my colleagues and I were preparing for our board exams—everyone was tense and overwhelmed, causing unnecessary bickering amongst each other, then one of the residents said that he just asked a patient what brought them to the hospital, and he replied, ‘a car.’ After that, everyone was cracking up, which lightened the mood for a bit.”

  • Priyanka Moondra, DO: “I was leading a code stroke that was called for "ataxia" and was preparing to push IV thrombolytic therapy as this patient was inside the therapeutic window. Coincidentally, the urine drug screen and serum toxicology screen had returned as the nurses were mixing the medication. The patient had a sky-high ethanol level—the patient was acutely intoxicated! We immediately aborted treatment of this stroke mimic.”

  • David Vogel, DO: “Humor in my program almost always saves the day, on a daily basis. Whether its from residents or attendings and program directors, jokes are are always welcome and help ease the tension that is inevitable in residency. This is one of the saving graces of my program, and one of the things I like most about it.”

Parting thoughts

In medical school and residency, we are under so much pressure to perform well, follow the rules, and “be serious.” But we often forget that we, as humans, love to laugh and are treating other humans who also love to laugh.

Treating patients at the bedside is a serious matter, of course, but I’ve found that the power of laughter and humor, when used respectfully, may be as important as empathy and kindness. 

Every medical resident has a question to ask and a story to tell—a comical moment, a prickly patient encounter, or a hack for staying sane during residency. We survey medical trainees for their best questions and answers and bring them to you in this column. Engaging, enlightening, and entertaining—from resident to resident!

Related: Voices of residents: 'This is exactly why I went into medicine'
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