Subjunctive medicine: Enacting efficacy in general practice

Soc Sci Med. 2020 Jan;245:112693. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112693. Epub 2019 Nov 21.


Modern general practice is complex. Issues such as multimorbidity, polypharmacy and chronic illness management can make applying myriad single condition evidence-based guidelines increasingly difficult. This is compounded because the problems presented in general practice often require both clinical and social solutions. In response to these issues, generalist clinicians are now expected to practise 'person-centred care': enabling and empowering patients by combining the technical rationality of medical science with individual values, needs and preferences. To explore this difficult undertaking we conducted an ethnography of a general practice surgery in England, including participant observation, interviews, and focus groups with patients, clinicians, and support staff, from February 2018 to March 2019. Our findings suggest that clinicians in our study faced considerable constraints, broadly conceived as the limits of biomedicine and the structural constraints of general practice. However, they mitigated these by getting into good habits, which we conceive in two categories: using expert judgement and taking patients seriously. We further propose that clinicians did not merely will themselves towards these good habits but developed and adapted them by intuitively adopting a second-order 'meta' habit of enaction - treating each consultation as collaboratively co-created anew. This suggests an important feature of the general practice consultation: it is conducted as much in the subjunctive as the indicative mood. Developing this proposition, we propose a more general form of medical practice - subjunctive medicine - extolling the value of the co-created social order of the general practice consultation itself. We suggest that practising subjunctive medicine may help clinicians sustainably and resiliently achieve the aims of person-centred care in modern general practice.

Keywords: Enactivism; England; Ethnography; General practice; Grounded theory; Person-centred care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • England
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • General Practice*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Multimorbidity*
  • Patient Participation*
  • Patient-Centered Care*
  • Polypharmacy
  • Referral and Consultation*
  • Self Care