Humor and Pediatrics (Spring 2013)

An Interview with Michael Kelly, MD

Dr. Kelly

                • Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
                • Residency Program Director more conversations

How do patients benefit from humor?

It can help make the patient feel more at ease and lets them connect to their doctor over something other than their medical condition.

Do children and parents benefit differently from humor?

This depends on the age of the child and the clinical context. Humor in most settings can serve as a release mechanism for staff and I think this is true for parents as well. As with children, humor can also help humanize the physician to the parent.

How do pediatricians benefit from humor?

As noted above, I personally find humor to be a mechanism to release stress and also to keep folks grounded.

Can pediatricians learn to be funny? Or is a "you-either-got-it-or-you-don't" thing?

It is learned beforehand and it not something that can be faked.

Can humor backfire and make a bad situation even worse?

This may be more likely to happen between staff rather than a family and a doctor. The family is still focused on the patient; if attempts at humor backfire, it will not really matter as compared to how the child is doing.

How do you distinguish between laughing with someone and laughing at someone? 

That will depend a lot on the “someone” – how do they interpret what is being said and the vein in which it is being said. The latter should never be the intent to start with.

Is there a list of standard jokes the pediatricians use or does the humor arise from the situation? 

Probably more so from the situation rather than a standard opening line.

I have encountered some humorless pediatricians.  As a parent should I be concerned?

No, humor is nice but no substitute for skill. You can encounter funny surgeons; I think it comes far more from someone’s personality rather than their profession.

Does humor potentially distract from the gravity of situation?

Humor can serve as a break from a serious situation and can allow you to refocus on what needs to be done. So much of that depends on the context and the people you are working with and how well they understand you and the situation. Two people can say the exact same thing in the exact same situation; the one perceived as having a good sense of humor or is known to use humor will get a pass; the other person will be seen as insensitive.

Is there potential for cross cultural confusion when dealing with patients and/or their parents for whom English is not their native language? 

Absolutely and one really needs to be cautious in these situations; children can also misinterpret attempts at humor. Humor should be seen as a means to an end- making the patient feel more comfortable or relaxed, making it easier for them to connect to you or perhaps for helping the staff release stress. It is never an end in of itself and you have to recognize when other means are needed to get to that end.

Humorous physicians have been portrayed in film and television.  Are these portrayals accurate?  Can medical students learn anything from them?

I have found little of what is portrayed on TV or film to be accurate when it comes to medicine. If you hear a good joke, try to remember it. That would be about it.

Do you have any physicians or mentors who inspired you with their humor?

I cannot think of a specific person in terms of humor but the way some of my mentors have worked to establish relationships with patients and the value of those relationships is what has inspired me.

Can humor have a role to play when teaching medical students?

Very much so; unfortunately not one of them gets my Seinfeld references. It can break the tension in a room and help them to focus. Humor was definitely a defense mechanism for myself and my friends during medical school, residency, fellowship and still to this day.

Are there any books or articles that your recommend on the topic? 

I have never read anything directly on this topic and that is not a joke.


Michael Kelly, MD is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He serves as the residency program director and also as an attending physician in the division of pediatric critical care medicine.


Here are some sources about humor and pediatrics selected by the RWJ Library Staff

Gaining Children’s Confidence: The judicious use of silliness
Harari, Michael D.

Humour in Paediatrics: editorial comments

Issacs, David
Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health
Volume 5, Issue 3 (Article first published online: 13 MAR 2009)

Joyful and serious intentions in the work of hospital clowns: A meta-analysis based on a 7-year research project conducted in three parts
Linge, Lotta
Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2013; 8: 10.3402

Humor in the Pediatric Emergency Department: A 20-Year Retrospective

Nelson, Douglas S.
Pediatrics 1992;89;1089

Saddened Not Amused

Hammer, Sandra
Pediatrics 1993; 91; 680

Medical Student Perceptions of Humor and Slang in the Hospital Setting

Parsons, Genevieve Noone, et al
J Gen Intern Med. 2001 August; 16(8): 544–549.