Laughter Really Can be the Best Medicine

Dr. Stephen Rose, gyncologic oncologist with the UW Carbone Cancer Center, uses humor to help patients feel more at ease


When it comes to treating his patients, Dr. Stephen Rose takes his job very seriously. He is a gynecologic oncologist at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and treats women with devastating and often terminal cancers. But for him, taking his job seriously includes an important, if contradictory, approach: he uses humor with his patients.


“One of my physician assistants made a comment that my patients really appreciate that I use humor with them, because not everybody does that,” Rose said. “And I wondered, ‘Do they appreciate it, really, or does it irritate them?’”


Rose began reading more and more about the use of humor, and the age-old adage that “laughter is the best medicine.”


“It’s been around forever,” Rose said. “And there’s some science, but not a ton of science behind it. It has been shown to improve immune function and reduce pain. But mostly there are lots of stories about the use of humor in medicine.”


While Rose believed (or at least wanted to believe) his physician assistant, he did not want to rely on anecdotes when it came to treating his patients. So he and his Carbone Cancer Center colleague, Dr. Ryan Spencer, decided to study the use of humor with their patients. They conducted a study of women with recurrent or terminal ovarian cancer where they asked them a series of questions about physicians using humor during treatment.


“We asked: Is it okay that doctors use humor with you? Do you appreciate it? Are you annoyed by it? Do you find it disrespectful?” Rose said. “And we found that patients really do like it and appreciate it.”


Rose and Spencer published the results from that study, and are currently analyzing a follow-up study where they ask if watching funny movies while waiting for appointments can improve women’s moods and levels of fear.


The initial study confirmed to Rose that he could, and should, continue to use humor with his patients. He cautioned that there are times when a humorous approach should not be used, such as when a physician is breaking bad news to a patient, or when the patient is expressing anger or frustration.


“The biggest thing is to try to get to know your patients first. Humor only works if you have a relationship with the patient, you can’t just come in and immediately use humor,” Rose said. “And the other big thing we found in that first study is that humor does not have to be a canned joke. Patients perceive humor as anything you talk about that isn’t about their cancer, so you just have to relate to them and share something about yourself every now and then.”


Rose is giving a talk on the use of humor – including his "rules to follow" for when and when not to use it – at the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s annual conference. The conference will be held Friday, October 6 at Monona Terrace in Madison. This year’s theme is “Communication Beyond Words: Strategies for Connecting with Patients.” To learn more about the conference, to see the other speakers and topics or to register, please visit  


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Date Published: 09/06/2017

News tag(s):  Advanceswellnesscancer

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