Young children's understanding of the social roles of physician and patient

Wendy L. Haight, James E. Black, M. Robin Dimatteo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Thirteen 4- and 5-year-old children's understanding of the social roles of doctor and patient was examined by means of a brief clinical interview and puppet play. In the context of a puppet play, each of 12 children first pretended to be either a doctor or a patient in a clinical setting while the experimenter played the complementary role. The experimenter and child then switched social roles and the structure and language of children's interactions were analyzed. While playing the role of physician, most children spontaneously asked numerous questions of the patient, performed therapeutic procedures, and prescribed therapeutic regimens. They often failed, however, to obtain a medical history or perform a physical exam, and their attempts at therapy included administering unspecific medication and prescribing rest, the in-gestion of fluids, the avoidance of friends, and "surgery." As patients, they asked few questions, gave few commands, and frequently divulged personal information. These findings suggest that while young children have fairly detailed knowledge of the social roles of physician and patient, their limited understanding of illness and its treatment may restrict their understanding of physicians' and patients' motivations. An understanding of children's health care concepts may better prepare pediatric health care professionals to alleviate their patients' unnecessary anxiety arising from misinterpretation of the professionals' motives or of clinical procedures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-43
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of pediatric psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1985


  • Medical roles
  • Puppet play
  • Social roles


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