Health professionals, their medical interventions and uncertainty: a study focusing on women at midlife

F. Griffiths, E. Green, Gillian Bendelow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Health professionals face a tension between focusing on the individual and attending to health issues for the population as a whole. This tension is intrinsic to medicine and gives rise to medical uncertainty, which here is explored through accounts of three medical interventions focused on women at midlife: breast screening, hormone replacement therapy and bone densitometry. The accounts come from interviews with UK health professionals using these medical interventions in their daily work. Drawing on the analysis of Fox [(2002). Health and Healing: The public/private divide (pp. 236-253). London: Routledge] we distinguish three aspects of medical uncertainty and explore each one of them in relation to one of the interventions. First is uncertainty about the balance between the individual and distributive ethic of medicine, explored in relation to breast screening. Second is the dilemma faced by health professionals when using medical evidence generated through studies of populations and applying this to individuals. We explore this dilemma for hormone replacement therapy. Thirdly there is uncertainty because of the lack of a conceptual framework for understanding how new micro knowledge, such as human genetic information, can be combined with knowledge of other biological and social dimensions of health. The accounts from the bone denistometry clinic indicate the beginnings of an understanding of the need for such a framework, which would acknowledge complexity, recognising that factors from many different levels of analysis, from heredity through to social factors, interact with each other and influence the individual and their health. However, our analysis suggests biomedicine continues to be dominated by an individualised, context free, concept of health and health risk with individuals alone responsible for their own health and for the health of the population. This may continue to dominate how we perceive responsibilities for health until we establish a conceptual framework that recognises the complex interaction of many factors at macro and micro level affecting health.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1078-1090
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2006


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