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Making Sense of Medicines: ‘Lay Pharmacology’ and narratives of safety and efficacy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Publication details

JournalScience as Culture
DatePublished - 2009
Issue number2
Number of pages15
Pages (from-to)233-247
Original languageEnglish


How do patients make sense of their medication, how do they link it to their own state of health, and how do they cope with it within the context of their daily life? Such questions represent significant gaps in traditional medical sociology, which has to date been dominated by research into the role of producers and intermediaries in shaping the social world of medicines. This paper examines the social construction of the meaning of medicine through a detailed exploration of patients who have been prescribed warfarin, an anticoagulant (blood thinning) drug, to treat various chronic cardiovascular disorders. Through the development of the concept of ‘lay pharmacology’ we locate these meanings within wider collectivities of other patients, family and the anticoagulation clinic itself. We ask whether we can anchor these meanings within the patients' own understanding of their condition and of their treatment, and how in light of both they make sense of the anticoagulation regime they are asked to follow. We compare clinical notions of the safety, efficacy and side effects of drugs with lay versions of the same in order to suggest how the latter may be drawn on in clinical settings to help inform clinical dialogue with patients more directly, while, at a more general level help inform clinical trials and allow for a constructive dialogue with those in public policy who are tasked with ensuring the delivery of safe and cost-effective medicines. More broadly, in an era of so-called ‘translational medicine’ how expert and lay understandings are actually brought together is a public policy issue that should be given much greater priority.

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