Communication & Medicine, Vol 5, No 2 (2008)

Could patients’ coughing have communicative significance?

Julia V. Bailey
Issued Date: 14 Mar 2009


Medical discourse positions patients with coughs and colds negatively, so consulting health services with ‘minor’ respiratory illness is therefore more accountable than for other medical problems. Patients face dilemmas since they must persuade doctors of the doctorability of their illness without being seen as hypochondriacal, and they risk losing face if doctors decide that there is nothing much wrong. It is known that the placement of non-lexical features of talk such as laughing or crying can have interactional meaning. Using a data set of videorecorded doctor–patient cough and cold consultations, this study explores whether patients’ coughing could have communicative significance. The study is a qualitative analysis of 33 consultations drawing on a constructionist, sociolinguistic analytic approach. Coughing is co-ordinated with talk rather than occurring randomly. Coughing helps patients to demonstrate the doctorability of their symptoms and to legitimize their claims for medical attention. Coughing is also associated with resistance to ‘no problem’ diagnoses, resulting in changes in the trajectory of talk (for example, soliciting more explanation from doctors and/or re-negotiation of doctors’ investigation or treatment plans). Coughing is undoubtedly a manifestation of respiratory illness, but also has communicative significance in consultations for coughs and colds.

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DOI: 10.1558/cam.v5i2.105


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