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Who are you Calling Sick? The Sociology of Diagnosis

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

How do doctors decide what is wrong with you? What happens when your symptoms cannot be explained medically? How do patients negotiate diagnoses, and where does self-diagnosis come in? This course will address these questions, as well as the decision-making process of diagnosis through a sociological lens. Diagnosis is the cornerstone of modern biomedical practice, since it constitutes a critical translation point between symptom and sickness, and person and patient. Patients seek diagnoses to get a name for their symptoms, thereby validating their complaints. Doctors seek diagnoses for classification purposes and to determine future treatment. Insurance companies demand diagnoses in order to cover the cost of care. This course will critically evaluate the diagnostic decision-making process and underscore its important social implications.

We will address a series of topics aimed at better understanding diagnosis as a social process. As diseases become more complex, and as medically unexplained symptoms become more common, the classification process becomes increasingly difficult. We will look at several emerging diseases such as fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity, and Morgellons disease to better understand how doctors deal with medical uncertainty. Drawing upon case studies, film clips, role-playing, and guest lectures from experts in the field, we will discuss the phenomenon of contested illnesses, differential diagnosis, medicalization, the psychiatrization of symptoms, social movements/lay epidemiology, cultural depictions of diagnosis as mystery (through television series such as "House" and "Mystery Diagnosis"), tensions related to misdiagnosis and malpractice, and finally, self-diagnosis. The ultimate goal of the course will be to encourage students to think critically about the seemingly unproblematic concept of diagnosis. The course has no pre-requisites and is especially suited for students contemplating a career in the medical field.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Think critically and sociologically about the practice of diagnosis in medicine
  • Identify social factors, which, in addition to medical ones, affect diagnoses
  • Understand how patients, physicians, and other actors negotiate diagnoses
  • Effectively communicate these reflections in written and oral assignments