Social Constructions of Health: Sick Role, Physician's Role & Profit Motive in Medicine

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  • 0:05 Role Expectations
  • 1:13 The Sick Role in Society
  • 3:14 The Physician's Role…
  • 4:23 The Profit Motive in Medicine
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

In this lesson, we discuss the theory of Talcott Parsons regarding the 'sick role' and the 'physician's role' as well as how society has constructed expectations for both. We also discuss the profit motive in medicine and why this is controversial.

Role Expectations

Imagine you arrive at work and discover your co-worker, Amanda, has called in sick because she has the flu. You continue your work day and then during your lunch break decide to take a trip to the market. There you see your 'sick' co-worker shopping. Amanda appears to feel fine, as she seems to have plenty of energy and is smiling. Would you assume that she lied about being sick?

In our society, there are many roles that people fill: parent, sibling, student, teacher, employee - the list goes on and on. These roles are of great interest to sociologists, because society has expectations about how people will behave in these roles and in certain situations, and these expectations endure over time. For example, an employee is expected to be at work during designated hours, perform job-related tasks, respect figures of authority, and so on. Knowing how people are supposed to act makes interaction smooth and more predictable.

The Sick Role in Society

Likewise, we have certain expectations of people who are sick. We assume they will match our sick role, a role society has created that defines appropriate patterns of behavior for people who are ill. According to the American sociologist Talcott Parsons, the sick role releases people from normal obligations like going to work or school. They are deserving of sympathy because they are not responsible for their condition. They should seek medical help if their condition is serious, and they must want to get well. However, people cannot simply claim to be ill; they must look and act the part. If they don't meet the role expectations, it results in negative social reactions. For example, you likely expected your co-worker to be at home when she is sick - or, if she is at the store, to look like she feels awful. Otherwise, Amanda is not fulfilling society's sick role and so most people would think she doesn't deserve to be released from work obligations.

One thing about the concept of a sick role is that it works better with acute or short-term conditions, such as a stomach bug or broken ankle, than chronic or long-term conditions. We know what to expect from someone with an acute condition. But it seems that if an individual is in the sick role for too long, we are not certain about expectations and how the sick person, or the people surrounding him or her, should act. Also, expectations are affected by social factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, and social class. For example, elderly people are more readily accepted by others into the sick role because they are more vulnerable to certain diseases and tend to experience more symptoms of illness.

The Physician's Role in Society

Another set of expectations that is related to the sick is the physician's role, a role society has created that defines appropriate patterns of behavior for people who are doctors. Society expects doctors to help restore the sick back to their normal routine. To do this, they confirm the person's claim of being sick and use their education and training to diagnose and treat any illness. If Amanda, your sick co-worker, went to a doctor, you would expect her to receive 'doctor's orders' that, if followed, would return her to her normal, healthier state.

Although the norm in our society is for a physician to be reactive, responding to someone who is already ill and treating acute symptoms, there have been physicians who have challenged this traditional role and promoted social change by empowering patients to take more responsibility for their own health. This illustrates the fact that the physician's role, like other roles, is dynamic and tends to change over time.

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