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‘Good’ patient/‘bad’ patient: clinical learning and the entrenching of inequality

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Publication details

JournalSociology of Health and Illness
DateAccepted/In press - Jul 2016
DateE-pub ahead of print - 31 Aug 2016
DatePublished (current) - 1 Jan 2017
Issue number1
Number of pages15
Pages (from-to)63-77
Early online date31/08/16
Original languageEnglish


This article develops sociological understanding of the reproduction of inequality in medicine. The material is drawn from a longitudinal study of student experiences of clinical learning that entailed 72 qualitative in-depth interviews with 27 medical students from five medical schools in the USA. To highlight the subtle, yet powerful, ways in which inequality gets entrenched, this article analyses ideas of the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ patient. Bad patients question not only biomedical knowledge but also medical students’ commitment to helping people. Good patients engage with medical students in a manner that upholds biomedical knowledge and enables students to assume the role of the healer and the expert. At the same time, good patients possess cultural skills that align with those of medical practitioners. This alignment is, furthermore, central to definitions of the good patient. Distinctions drawn between good and bad patients thus both embody as well as enforce social inequality. The subtle reproduction of inequality is, however, difficult to discern because judgements about patients entwine with emotion.

    Research areas

  • cultural health capital, emotion, inequality, medical education

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