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Keywords:

  • chronic fatigue syndrome;
  • medical dominance;
  • medicalisation;
  • diagnosis;
  • chronic illness;
  • medical uncertainty

Abstract

The concept of ‘medicalisation’ has informed the sociology of health and illness for several decades. Typically, it has been discussed with critical connotations, although some commentators have suggested that it is not unequivocally negative. This paper seeks to clarify the concept, suggests that medicalisation can be both helpful and unhelpful, and identifies the characteristics of beneficial medicalisation. Using data from doctors and patients who are dealing with a refractory, relapsing and disabling condition - Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - we explore the impact of medicalisation in different forms on the participants in the medical encounter. Both doctors and patients were, at times, uneasy about the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy through which a medical diagnosis might generate deleterious consequences from a comparatively trivial complaint. However, when such motivations prompted doctors to withhold information (such as a suspected diagnosis), the results were generally increased difficulties for the patient. Whether intentional or accidental, medical dominance in any form consistently generated problems for patients. But when medical explanations were mobilised to enhance the coherence of the patient's experience of symptoms, patients found medicalisation to be helpful. Patients whose doctors took their symptoms seriously gained legitimation which helped them in a range of social relationships. They also received support for their efforts at self-management. Legitimacy, coherence and support are all necessary components for improved well-being, and doctors can supply such assistance even in the absence of unequivocal diagnosis and proven therapeutic interventions.