Notes on the Sociology of Medical Discourse: The Language of Case Presentation

  • Anspach R
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This paper examines a segment of medical social life that has not been studied extensively: formal presentations of case histories by interns, residents, and fellows. Because they are presented by physicians in training to their status superiors, who are evaluating them, case presentations are exercises in self-presentation which serve as a vehicle for professional socialization. This analysis of the language of case presentation is based on case presentations collected in two intensive care nurseries and an obstetrics and gynecology service. Four features of case presentation are identified: 1) the separation of biological processes from the person (de-personalization); 2) omission of the agent (e.g., use of the passive voice; 3) treating medical technology as the agent; and 4) account markers, such as "states," "reports," and "denies," which emphasize the subjectivity of patients' accounts. The language of case presentation has significant, if unintended, consequences for those who use it. First, some features of case presentation eliminate the element of judgment from medical decisions and mitigate responsibility for medical decision making. Second, some are rhetorical devices which enhance the credibility of the findings that are presented. Third, the language of case presentation minimizes the import of the patient's history and subjective experience. Finally, case histories socialize those who present them to a culture or world view which may contradict the explicit tenets of medical education.

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  • Renee R Anspach

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