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Kevin Smith in a classroom with students.

Kevin Smith combines his stand-up comedian skills with his experiences as a caregiver and shares the results with students.

A laughing matter: Kevin Smith teaches that humor can have a place in health car

Kevin Smith teaches that humor can have a place in health care

By Mark Engebretson

Published on June 5, 2004

As he zips through the syllabus for his Humor and Health class, instructor Kevin Smith holds up a plastic baggie containing a collection of torn and tattered papers. "This is the only evidence--ever--of homework that was eaten by a dog," he deadpans. "If the dog eats your homework, please present it this way." It was a fittingly funny introduction for the two dozen students, most of them in the health sciences. Smith, a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner, has taught at the School of Nursing for nine years. He also happens to be a stand-up comedian who counts Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, the Smothers Brothers, and George Carlin as early influences.

"As far as we know, laughter has no negative side effects--unless of course you just had an appendectomy," says Smith.

"I took a humor writing class at the Open U and one of our assignments was to perform stand-up comedy," he recalls. From there it "was a natural progression in bringing humor and health together. I developed a presentation called the Art and Science of Humor. The audience was primarily health professionals." For the past 12 years, Smith has taught the popular course through continuing education. Two years ago, he approached the Center for Spirituality and Healing about offering Humor and Health as a one-credit elective for health professions students (and others) to learn how to use humor as a communications tool for relating to patients and co-workers. The second major course component is an examination of existing research on the therapeutic benefits of humor, laughter, and positive attitudes. "It seemed to me that bringing this into an academic environment could expose health care professionals to something that is different and interesting," Smith says. "It might help them with communication skills. It might help them with patient-relations skills. And also I think that the notion of attitude or sense of humor having an effect on our physiology is worth being explored." "Kevin was the perfect person to teach it," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing. "He has a wealth of experience to draw upon when teaching students how humor can effectively be used and understood." Smith even addresses gallows humor. "Freud felt that gallows humor was a very effective way for dealing with very difficult situations," says Smith, who performs stand-up mainly at corporate events such as annual meetings and conferences. "It's the humor used in morgues, emergency rooms, and operating rooms that really does have a benefit." Karyn Grenz, a graduate student in the family nurse practitioner program, is taking the class to learn how to use humor to enhance communications with adult patients. Currently, Grenz is working in a pediatric intensive care unit. "A lot of my co-workers use sarcasm, which doesn't always seem appropriate," she says. "If used appropriately, humor can enhance communication," says Kreitzer. "However, one needs to be very sensitive to humor that is offensive, divisive, or inappropriate." While the interpersonal benefits to humor seem self-evident, therapeutic benefits have not been proven, something Smith emphasizes to his students. "There are many studies looking at the physiological response with humor and laughter, such as effects on serum cortisol levels, heart rate, and pain tolerance," Smith says. "We look at it as a question. Do you feel that these studies hold weight?" For Smith, the most important lesson for his students is to know that they don't need to be funny to have a sense of humor. "You don't have to be a joke teller, you don't have to be the life of the party, but you can still use humor in an effective way."

From an article orginally published in Pictures of Health, spring 2004.