Explaining Illness: Research, Theory, and Strategies

Explaining Illness: Research, Theory, and Strategies

Explaining Illness: Research, Theory, and Strategies

Explaining Illness: Research, Theory, and Strategies


Understanding one's health conditions plays a key role in a patient's response to illness, influencing stress levels and the likelihood of following treatment regimens and advice. Thus, the explanation of illness is a critical component of the interactions between health care providers and their patients. Emphasizing these exchanges and their potential for improving health and well being, Bryan B. Whaley has assembled this collection to serve both as a foundation for further research on explaining illness and as a resource for provider-patient interaction.

Contributors from the communication and health care disciplines examine the purpose and methods of explaining illness, as well as the role that illness explanations play in framing and reframing meaning and uncertainty regarding one's health welfare. Including theoretical, developmental, and cultural factors, the elegance of this book is the richness in the differences among populations and communication strategies, and the articulation of the intricacies of language, illness, and culture in the explanations.

As a resource for scholars and students of communication, medicine, nursing, public health, social work, and related areas, this volume establishes a benchmark from which to examine and evaluate current theory and strategies in explaining illness, and to launch systematic research endeavors. Health practitioners will also find the book invaluable in their exchanges with their patients, as a unique source of information on the factors influencing the explanation of illness.


The quests to find explanations and meanings are among the defining characteristics of humans. Although they overlap, there are important differences between explanations and meanings. the search for explanations can be a powerful drive for scientific discovery. Indeed, the essence of the scientific method is empirical testing of hypotheses (possible explanations) until one is found that accounts for the observed phenomenon. Better methods of observation and better ways to control or account for confounding factors often lead to increasingly refined and more accurate explanations.

The quest for meaning may include explanation but goes beyond it, often to the realms of philosophy, art, and religion. Explanation involves careful testing of how a phenomenon came to occur at a particular time. With increasing knowledge, the answers usually become increasingly specific, more precise, and more certain. Meaning may include these "how" and "when" questions, but goes on to ask "why." Here, answers may not be certain at all and often involve beliefs that are increasingly broad and difficult to test.

This book is about explaining illness. Much of it concerns the complexities involved in communicating and understanding explanations for illness among different age groups, cultures, and individuals. These are issues of great importance for physicians and other health professionals and also for patients, which includes all of us. This kind of communication is an essential aspect of the patient-physician relationship, which is at the very center of medicine. As a medical editor, I thought it was important to have a forum for scholarly consideration of this relationship and its challenges, so I developed a section of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) to be devoted to it (Glass, 1996). Recognizing, as does this book . . .

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