Are doctors and nurses insensitive if they joke about the horrible things they see at work? Commonly known as “gallows humor,” these kinds of jokes are commonly used as a method of coping in professions that deal with tragedy on a daily basis, such as medicine or social work.
As a former social worker myself, I can attest to the fact that sometimes making light of the horrible things you see is the only way to make it through the day. It does not mean you care any less about the people you have dedicated your days to helping, but the emotional toll of that kind of work is great and humor provides a release. It is important to note that this kind of humor is used out of the hearing of patients and clients – it is not used to insensitively mock a vulnerable person, but can instead be compared to “locker room humor,” used among peers in private.
But can gallows humor among physicians result in more accusations of improper use of euthanasia? A commentary in the September issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings asks whether a “light” attitude toward death leads to more accusations by other members of the medical team that that physician unnecessarily abandoned life-saving efforts on a patient.
It has been found that three-quarters of all doctors admit to joking about speeding along the death of a patient (e.g., being called “Dr. Death”), and that one-third of accusations of murder made against doctors come from other members of the medical profession. So, is there a connection? Dr. Lewis M. Cohen, MD, of Tufts University School of Medicine, argues that the answer is no. He believes that gallows humor has its place in medicine, saying, "Levity must remain an acceptable defense mechanism in medicine for coping with the weightiest of medical duties: helping patients die with grace and dignity."