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Researchers Seek Hints at Patient Attitudes in Doctor Jokes

Lebanon — Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

A bunch of researchers studying doctor jokes on Facebook, that’s who.

But it’s not all just for laughs. The Dartmouth Institute of Health Policy & Clinical Practice study published in the February edition of the Journal of Medical Internet Research is one of the first to look at social networking site conversations pertaining to health and medicine, according to a news release from the institute.

“There’s a ton of interest among the research community trying to figure out how we can understand sources of information like this (on social media),” author Matthew A. Davis, an instructor at the institute, said in an interview. “This is a whole new area, and in some ways this study was just getting our feet wet, looking at the data.”

Davis and several colleagues combed through more than 33,000 Facebook users’ posts over a six-month period to find and analyze the prevalence and success of “canned” jokes about doctors — jokes that have a setup and a punch-line and don’t rely on outside context. Users had given permission to have everything on their Facebook wall monitored, and were vetted by an outside research group to verify their identities.

The study, titled Did You Hear the One About the Doctor? An Examination of Doctor Jokes on Facebook, shows “the potential of using social networking sites for research on health and medicine,” according to the release.

Davis said it was an unfunded study, as market research firm Harris Interactive provided the data free of charge.

“The big perspective” going forward, Davis said in an interview, “is sort of looking at, can we connect behaviors happening in the virtual setting with the real world?”

In addition to learning about analyzing social media data, Davis said his team gleaned an inside look at the way people use “call and response” — putting out a statement to the world and seeing what kind of reaction they get — particularly during the stress of a health care situation, which can be awkward, uncomfortable and emotional.

Some users appeared to be updating Facebook from hospital beds, he said.

“It kind of dawned on me after a while that it was actually not that surprising” that people were using social media and humor in that way, Davis said. “It became a little more apparent that joking about the health care system and the doctors is probably a pretty healthy way of dealing with stress.”

Out of 263 jokes identified, the group studied 156 jokes that garnered what researchers called an “electronic laugh” — such as a comment of “LOL,” for “laughing out loud,” or “ROTFL,” for “rolling on the floor laughing” — from other users.

Researchers also looked at the number of “likes” — in which other Facebook users click a thumbs-up button beneath the post — that the jokes received.

“Jokes in which the doctor (or the health care system) was the butt of the joke tended to be more successful, although the association was not statistically significant,” the release said.

By and large, the jokes were admittedly “totally lame” and “cheesy jokes, for sure,” Davis said with a laugh.

“We couldn’t identify contextual jokes. We were going after ‘bah-dum-dum’ jokes,” he said.

He gave the example of a joke that tells the tale of two patients limping into hospitals with broken backs. One gets help right away, and the other is sent through a months-long barrage of tests, rescheduled appointments and general bureaucratic hassle.

Why? Because the first patient is a golden retriever, and the second patient is a senior citizen.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.