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Gallows Humor in Medicine Medical professionals regularly joke about their patients’ problems. Some of these jokes are clearly wrong, but are all jokes wrong?

David told me his story fifteen years after he finished his residency, but the urgency with which he told it made it seem like it happened last night. “You’re the ethicist,” he said. “Was it wrong to make a joke?”

Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well. There is a fair amount of literature on humor in medicine generally, most of which is focused on humor in clinician-patient interactions or humor’s benefit to patients. There is relatively little specifically addressing the topic of this article: gallows humor in medicine, which usually occurs in interactions between health care providers.

David told me his story fifteen years after he finished his residency, but the urgency with which he told it made it seem like it happened last night. “You’re the ethicist,” he said. “Was it wrong to make a joke?”

Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well. There is a fair amount of literature on humor in medicine generally, most of which is focused on humor in clinician-patient interactions or humor’s benefit to patients. There is relatively little specifically addressing the topic of this article: gallows humor in medicine, which usually occurs in interactions between health care providers.

Katie Watson, "Gallows Humor in Medicine," Hastings Center Report 41, no. 5 (2011): 37–45.