Conflict Between Doctor and Patient

Law, Medicine & Health Care, Vol. 16, pp. 197-203, 1988

7 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2011

See all articles by Susan M. Wolf

Susan M. Wolf

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: Winter 1988


Conflict between doctor and patient is inevitable. Their training, perspective, and stake in any clinical decision are markedly different. Yet clinical interaction and the scholarship are rife with efforts to avoid that conflict. Jay Katz has famously explored physician silence as a strategy of avoidance; he argues that the systematic avoidance of conflict is a tradition in medicine, grounded in ancient paternalistic commitments. Yet even the reconceptualized doctor-patient relationship born of modern bioethics sweeps conflict under the rug. Numerous articles on decisions to forgo resuscitation, for instance, speak euphemistically of patient "participation" in the decision, failing to face the fact that the patient’s refusal of life-sustaining treatment controls. In the clinic too, the prevailing notion is that if the clinician is skilled enough, the patient can be managed and conflict prevented.

This article is an attempt to take conflict in the relationship seriously. It is an examination of the persistence of old strategies to avoid conflict, including continued silence, and the emergence of new ones, such as physician claims that they need not discuss with patients treatments the physician deems futile. Physicians also are asserting claims of conscientious refusal, allowing a doctor who disagrees with a patient’s choice to withdraw from the case. The article analyzes these responses to doctor/patient conflict and finds them deeply problematic.

To ignore the inevitability of doctor/patient conflict – to prioritize harmony, "shared decision-making," and "patient participation" – is to revive in new form the old practice of ignoring the differences between the interests and perspectives of doctor and patient. To take those differences seriously, means accepting disagreement and working with it. It means trading the peacefulness of silence for the rough-and-tumble of real conversation.

Keywords: Doctor-patient relationship, doctor-patient communication, physician, patient, autonomy, paternalism, conflict, conscientious objection, medical futility, bioethics, medical ethics, health law, informed consent, Jay Katz

Suggested Citation

Wolf, Susan M., Conflict Between Doctor and Patient (Winter 1988). Law, Medicine & Health Care, Vol. 16, pp. 197-203, 1988, Available at SSRN:

Susan M. Wolf (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-625-3406 (Phone)
612-624-9143 (Fax)


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