If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Relating social theories to medicine

Created by Sydney Brown.

Want to join the conversation?

  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user mb6016
    Since she mentioned how women are underrepresented in certain medical specialties, I thought it was kinda interesting (especially to us hopefully future doctors) and looked it up. If anyone is curious, this article shows some pretty recent data: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/ama-wire/post/medical-specialties-vary-gender

    Much more women in fields like pediatrics and OBGYN. Much more men in anesthesiology and radiology.
    (18 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user mdebeau
      Are you arguing its unfair there are less women compared to men in other high yield specialties, literally just because there are less women? Or, are you arguing that there is some unfair bias held by admission officers in residency programs that favor men? If you can't produce evidence that there is an unfair advantage allotted to men, then one might interpret your argument as a call for unfair advantages given to women when applying to more competitive residences. One might infer that you are assuming women are a weaker sex that needs to be protected and given privilege when applying to highly competitive residencies which is sexist and offensive.

      My mother is the President of Anesthesiology at Kaiser Permanente in Folsom, California. Like every other man and woman who has risen to this level of prestige and mastery, she had to work hard and out-compete others.
      (0 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Toni McDougall
    It also occurred to me that Social Constructionism can also affect the patient physician relationship because patients may view the physician in a certain way and may not be comfortable enough to disclose necessary information.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot hal style avatar for user Abid Ali
      An example of symbolic interactionism would be treating doctors with disrespect because you read a news article about a doctor committing insurance fraud. You act based on the meaning you give something. Social constructionism has more to do with "what is a doctor?" We give meaning and value to what a doctor is in society. Without society, being a doctor has no meaning. Just like how the value of money is assigned by society and without society, money would have no value.
      (16 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Kirk
    Is happiness not accounted for in rational exchange theory? For example, people find helping others beneficial to them since they achieve happiness and satisfaction. So in a way people are rationally adding happiness to the equation.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Michael
      Rational choice theory assumes (as in economics) that happiness is the result of acquisition of goods and the ability to fulfill one's desires/preferences. But if helping others makes you happy, then this could be a factor, yes. You might also want to also consider the role of social constructivism (i.e. societal norms and expectations) in shaping one's desires to help others (as opposed to this being an innate preference).
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Mouazi
    So medicalization is explained by both symbolic interactionism and social constructionism?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user agentellsworth
    Metal head, reporting for duty.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user lilly pad
    Why didn't you include the consequences to female patients due to misogyny and patriarchy? You only included how female doctors are marginalized. But female patients are discriminated against in huge ways. For starters, did you know that male surgeons kill female patients 15% more than their male patients? While female surgeons do not have discrepancies in mortality rates between the sexes? Women are not treated for their pain adequately as most doctors believe they are overreacting (this is even worse for black women, but white women receive less pain meds than white men for similar injuries/pain scale). Medication itself is not even studied in the female body because we are "tOo ComPliCaTed". Our bodies metabolize drugs differently. We have longer intestines than men so drug dosages based on weight alone and not taking into account sex can lead to overdose in female patients (or underdose in other meds. Or sometimes meds don't even work for female bodies). Symptoms for health complications can vary widely between the sexes, take for instance heart attack. I took an EMT course and they taught me the "standard" symptoms of a heart attack. And in a tiny tiny tiny paragraph in the end, it told me that for women and elderly patients, heart attack symptoms are "irregular". You mean to tell me that even though the women + elderly population is greater than the male (- elderly males) population, WE are the abnormal ones? Men tend to have heart attacks and strokes more often, but women die from them more often - because we are so AbNorMal.

    I'm not even getting started to all the deadly sexism in the medical industry. Never mind the classic misogyny/male violence that leads to comatose female patients "miraculously" becoming pregnant on a male nurses watch. Read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez for more about this topic and more misogyny in other institutions.
    (0 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

Voiceover: When you step back and look at the sociology content here, you might be wondering how in the world any of this applies to medicine. You might say, it has nothing to do with the physical health of a person, so why do you need to know all of this? Why do these social theories and social structures matter to someone in the field of medicine? Let's go through the different theories and figure this out. First off, we have functionalism. Remember, functionalism is the theory that different institutions in a society adjust to minor changes to keep the society stable and functioning. If we look at the function of medicine in society from a functionalist point of view. We're asking what is the purpose of medicine. Well when people become ill medicine ensures that they return to a functional state, so they can contribute to society. Being sick is detrimental to the well being of the society as a whole and when you're sick people can usually tell. They tell you to go home and get better. The assumption is that you're not supposed to participate in society when you're sick. This upsets the stability of the society on a small scale at least. The doctor is there to get you better again, so you can get back to participating in society. On a bigger scale, the institution of medicine helps us stabilize the social system in emergency situations like hurricanes or earthquakes, where hospitals and medical professionals take over large spaces like school gyms to provide the medical assistance needed by the many people who are injured. In day-to-day life medicine helps to improve the quality of life for the aging population, allowing them to contribute to society for longer. Okay, that seems to make sense. Medicine keeps people healthy and participating in society. What about conflict theory? How do conflicting groups in a society affect the health of an individual? As we know, conflict theory is all about the inequality between different groups. In the case of medicine, this could have quite a significant impact on who has access to medical care, meaning both access to hospitals and the ability to be covered by insurance. Wealthier citizens can pay for the best medical care, but people that are scraping by cannot afford hospital bills without insurance. Sometimes people can afford health insurance when it isn't provided by their employer or they can't afford the deductibles, so they skip the hospital visit and try to heal on their own. Meaning they are sick for longer or perhaps they never get better. The unequal access to valuable resources in society, like education, housing or well-paying jobs, leads to health disparities and limited access to medical care. Even the power struggle between different interest groups can affect the health of an individual. Take a look at air pollution regulations. Factories want more lax regulations to reduce costs, while the people living near those factories want stricter regulations for their own health and well being. Asthma rates rise in areas with higher levels of particulate matter in the air. Stricter air pollution regulations keep the residents healthier, in terms of asthma rates at least, but put a dent in the income of factories. All right, two down. Let's take a look at the theory of social constructionism now. In case you forgot, social constructionism is the idea that society gives value to everything. A diamond was just a rock until society agreed that it should have value. In regards to medicine, it means that as a society, we have attached different meanings to different behaviors, and we have different preconceptions of different people. In short it means stereotypes, we have assumptions about people based on their appearance or actions and we treat people differently because of those assumptions. We have preconceptions about different races, ages, genders, even subcultures like medal heads. In the past, if we saw someone talking to themselves on the street we would assume they were mentally unstable so we would give them a wide berth. Today, we know people might be talking on a Bluetooth device and so we assume they aren't crazy. Assumptions can be very dangerous to a medical professional. They can affect how you treat your patient or your diagnosis. But interaction between the patient and the doctor is influenced by stereotype assumptions on both sides. Perhaps the patient feels some symptom is not important enough to mention to the doctor or perhaps the doctor makes a false assumption based on how the patient appears. Assumptions also affect how the health system views the patient. There are people who argue that someone who can't afford health care doesn't deserve it because they don't work hard enough. You can't declare a characteristic of a person based on their circumstance. There are people who don't work who can still afford health care, while some people work hard at minimum wage who can't spare the money. You also have to be aware of medicalization, where patients or doctors will construct an illness out out ordinary behavior. A child who can't sit still in class doesn't necessarily have ADD. They might just need to get out on the playground and run. Now that we know to be aware of social based assumptions, let's check out how symbolic interactionism applies to medicine. Remember the symbolic interactionism states that individuals give the world meaning by interacting with it. One person could consider a bridge a way to cross over a body of water, while another person considers it a good shelter from the rain. There are many ways we can see how this applies to medicine. Let's take a look at two. For one, we have the doctor-patient relationship. The meaning given to simple objects, like a lab coat or a stethoscope, can affect the interaction. It is important for the doctor to realize the meaning the patient's given to the tools of medicine. The patient may see the lab coat as a sign of authority, giving the doctor the power to diagnose and treat them. Is the stethoscope a way for the doctor to connect with the patient, or is it just a tool that decorates a doctor's neck? Second, we have the changes in society. Recently, there has been a medicalization of society, where everything from beauty to just being fidgety now has a medical fix. Standards of beauty have encouraged many people to undergo unnecessary plastic surgery. People can choose to have C-sections when giving birth. Which can effect both the mother and child later in life. Normal behaviors are being shown as illnesses. One of the most prevalent examples of illness manufacturing is in the case of depression. While depression is a serious condition it's importance and severity have been marginalized. It seems like every other person today is depressed. When you're sad, society views that as there being something wrong with you, but in reality sadness is a natural biological function. We're suppose to be sad sometimes. All right, let's take a look at something a bit more specific. Feminist theory is an offshoot of conflict theory that focuses on the inequalities between men and women in society. These inequalities are pretty apparent when looking at the field of medicine. Though the admittance of women into med school is on the rise, it is still am male-dominated field. The heads of hospitals and doctors in general still tend to be men. There's a disparity in the jobs and salary between male and female doctors. Men more often occupy higher paid positions. Women are more often found in family medicine rather than specialized fields. This disparity in health care positions translates into a disparity in power. If you take a look at medicine from the perspective of rational choice and exchange theories, you can observe big worldview issues of power. Rational choice and exchange theory assume that people behave rationally according to their best interests. And that you can break down any social institution into the self-interest of interactions between individuals. So, let's see how this applies. When you look at the medical system as a whole, you can ask, what is the purpose of the medical system? Does it really exist to keep people healthy or is there some other reason? Perhaps it’s a capitalist competition to earn the most money. Perhaps the structure of our medical system benefits private companies more than it does the sick people that it’s supposed to be helping. People run every aspect of the medical system and those people will make decisions that benefit themselves more than a random sick stranger. And perhaps, that effects why people go to the doctor or not when they're sick. Will going to the doctor benefit them the most in the long run? Or will it cost them an arm and a leg? Some people avoid doctor visits for minor things, because they can not afford the expense. But that could allow something that could be easily treated to become a much larger problem. The self interested behavior people in charge of different aspects of the medical system will trickle down to eventually effect the well being of a patient. Well look at that bridging the gap between sociology and medicine seemed a near impossible task when we started but now we have quite a few examples. To be honest, there are probably so many more ways that sociology's involved in medicine. Let's take a look outside the specific theories too. Where you live can affect you health. There are urban areas called food deserts, where there are no grocery stores within a reasonable distance. The only places to eat are fast food restaurants or, perhaps, grabbing a snack at a gas station. It is nearly impossible to get the nutrition a body needs from only these sources, and malnutrition can lead to a host of other problems. Some neighborhoods have no gyms or playgrounds, nowhere for residents to exercise. You can use these examples to come up with your own examples of other places where sociology applies to medicine.