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Funny Bones: is humour a positive force in MedEd?

Doctor doctor... I feel like I'm a pair of curtains...

Medicine has always been the subject of humour, and jokes are rife within learning tools in Medical Education. But what place should humour have for students, and should we be cautious about its use?

“Is it true that an apple a day keeps the doctor away…
or is it just one of Granny's myths?”

It’s 4:59pm in a warm and claustrophobic lecture theatre. We’re on slide number 78, and the presenter has long since lost the audience. The only thing that can be heard above the gentle snoring of your neighbour is the monotonous witterings of the presenter about enzyme inducers and inhibitors. But never fear, for the lecturer has one last card to play. An ace in the hole. Something that will finally win over those doubters and produce a learning epiphany for these young minds. It’s the obligatory, vaguely relatable medical cartoon. Torn straight from the late 90s and a shameless search for ‘medicine funny’ on Google Images, the audience utter a groan as they flee the lecture theatre.

We’ve all been in this cringeworthy situation as students. But can comedy genuinely be used effectively as a tool for learning? As educationalists, how do we harness humour in an appropriate and memorable way? I would argue that, with decent delivery and preparation, teaching on orthopaedics can be ‘humerus’, cardiothoracics talks can be rib-tickling and lessons on the appendix can be side splitting!

The evidence tells us that students want to laugh. A cross-sectional survey undertaken by MBBS students in Pakistan indicated that 52% chose to attend certain lectures based on their teaching having ‘a sense of humour’. [1] I certainly remember being particularly keen on making it to gynaecology lectures in my first year of medical school, so as to enjoy my senior lecturer donning a large white sheet, waving his hands in the air and asking us to point out the anatomical landmarks of the female reproductive system. I never did forget that his fingers represented the uterine tube fimbriae.

As ridiculous (or crude) as this kind of teaching may sound, there is method to the madness, particularly in the correct setting. As junior doctors, we are considered to be ‘peers’ by medical students, more so than consultants or senior staff may be. Concerning peer education, the evidence suggests that humour can foster familiarity and camaraderie amongst peer learning groups, moreover acting as a gateway to the discussion of more sensitive topics in the classroom setting. [2]

Comedy can take centre stage in any type of resource in MedEd. Consider the rise of podcasts in exam revision: for every serious, lecture-based production, you may find gems such as MedPod 101[3], which tell a tale of a gritty detective trying to uncover the case of the ‘Dizzy Dame’ (spoilers: it’s vertigo!). Youtube is littered also with hilariously memorable learning videos, including the spectacular ‘EKG Dance’ [4].  These examples demonstrate that, if you have time and are committed to the cause, creating a humorous MedEd resource can inspire your students and medics the world over.

Embracing your funny bones does not have to be a momentous project, however. Numerous medical educationalists are logging on to social media to interact with their students on a digital level, discovering that this can increase engagement with teaching sessions.[5] Numerous accounts build this relationship with the use of humorous links and memorable ‘memes’. Whilst not always providing a direct learning point, they can help the educationalist appear more relatable and approachable, which has obvious benefits in the teacher-student relationship.

‘But what about me?!’ I hear you cry, ‘I’m not as funny as these medical stand-up comics!’. Fear not. As long as the setting is appropriate, and an effort is made to engage with students, it would be reasonable to suggest that even the classic cartoons mentioned in the nightmare above can be used to brighten up a dry topic.

And for those doubting their comedy credentials? I now present proof that humour drawn from even the most cringeworthy, pun-infested corner of the medical mind could ensure a tough topic lives long in the memory. The use of these cartoons perhaps could have rescued the lecturer in our nightmare scenario. Who knew inducers and inhibitors could be so hilarious?


[1] Manzoor, I., et al, Lectures in medical education: students' views., J Ayub Med Coll Abbottabad. 2011 Oct-Dec;23(4):118-21.
[2] Cooper, S., et al, Just jokes! Icebreakers, innuendo, teasing and talking: The role of humour in HIV/AIDS peer education among university students. Afr J AIDS Res. 2013 Dec;12(4):229-38
[5] Bahner, D.P., Adkins, E., Patel, N., Donley, C., Nagel, R., Kman, N.E., How we use social media to supplement a novel curriculum in medical education, Medical Teacher, 2012, 34(6) pp. 439-44


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