July 01, 2024

Role Conflict: Social Contact with your Doctor

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

Sociologists are very interested in the social roles that we take on as part of our daily lives. Our roles provide us with social scripts—ways of behaving in particular situations that are consistent with these roles.

Take going to the doctor’s office. As a patient, you will likely be asked to wait when you arrive, provide personal information about your bodily functions and your insurance. When you are called into an examination room, you might be asked to remove parts of your clothing, answer more personal questions, and undergo medical measurements.

Health care providers may knock on your exam room door to see if they can come in, but otherwise they’re really in charge of the situation. They determine how much time to spend with you, ask any questions they feel are necessary, and decide when the interaction is over.

A doctor’s role is reinforced by their title; within doctor-patient interactions, they are usually referred to as “doctor” rather than their first name. They seldom share personal information, particularly if it is not relevant to the patient. For instance, my doctor has shared having a similar experience with a condition we both have, but only in relation to my care. It would be highly unusual for a patient to ask the doctor personal questions about their health during an exam in most cases.

But what happens when you interact with your doctor in another social context? This creates what sociologists call role conflict, when we might feel uncomfortable with the various demands that multiple roles place upon us. We might not know how to behave, for instance, when we see our doctor in the waiting room in another doctor’s office when they are patients just like us.

This happened to me several years ago, when I coincidentally had an appointment in the same practice as one of my doctor’s—who I was going to be seeing within a few days. I felt it was best to say hi but otherwise act as a stranger would, despite knowing that we would be following the social script above and I would be sharing very personal information with her in a few days.

Although I live in a big city, I live in a community where many health care providers both live and work, so these experiences of role conflict happen often. From seeing my primary care provider in the grocery store, my dermatologist driving by while I’m on a walk, it is all somewhat routine. We see my husband’s primary care provider driving to work almost every day while taking a walk, and they wave, but one day we saw him on foot while walking his dog. He maintained his role as doctor by stating, “I’m always glad to see my patients getting exercise.”

These are all brief encounters where any awkwardness ends quickly, as the out-of-place interaction is fleeting. Recently, I had a much longer interaction in a social setting with my dentist, just days after a check-up. As it turned out, our spouses grew up around the corner from one another and played together as kids. They had reconnected in the past year, and along with another childhood friend and spouse, the we all had dinner together.

I felt unsure how to act, not wanting to upset the doctor-patient relationship, so I made a joke about her being able to identify me by my dental records to break the ice. Someone asked her about the use of artificial intelligence in dentistry, and she described how a machine—basically a 3D printer—makes crowns while patients wait. I just had one made in her office within the last two years, so I chimed in about the wonders of the technology, and volunteered to show the video I made of the process on my phone.

Otherwise, I stayed mostly quiet. People asked me about my work—a “small talk” subject not entirely out of place at a doctor’s office, but I made sure not to ask her any personal questions. I was careful not to refer to her by her first name, and when the evening ended and people hugged goodbye, I hung back to avoid an overly personal interaction. There was talk of another get together; her husband said, “we’ll have to have you all over at our place sometime.”

I’m not sure if that will ever happen, and that would be another level of role conflict all together. Dental interactions, at least, are not nearly as personal as other types of health care interactions, which made things a bit easier. But shifting statuses can make our interactions awkward and leave us without social scripts to follow. 


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