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The cure-it's egg : what do satirical cartoons add to the study of doctor-patient interactions?

Centre for Psychiatry

Funding Body: National Institute of Health Research
Project Investigator: Stefan Priebe


There is a great deal written about doctor-patient interactions by professionals and academics. These writings include professional standards, guidelines on good clinical practice, studies of psychotherapy or the placebo effect, advice on teaching communication skills, and ethical debates. The authors are usually medically qualified, and their focus is overwhelmingly on the doctor half of the interaction. Often, they use 'fuzzy' terms, such as "honesty", "appropriateness", "communication", "empathy", which typically are assumed to be desirable but are neither defined, nor translated into observable, practical skills.

In a PhD project, David Dodwell (a consultant psychiatrist with a long-term interest in cartoons and interdisciplinary research) has chosen to compare these discourses with one source of lay perspectives: published satirical cartoons. The curate's egg referenced in the study title, meaning something which has good and bad parts, derives from an 1895 Punch cartoon by du Maurier [1].

Cartoons have been chosen because available examples cover a long time-course; they typically portray concrete, observable situations; they employ visual representation; they rely on accessibility to a reasonably large audience; and they are as likely to satirise patients as doctors. All these characteristics make them a perfect complement to professional and academic accounts. No systematic study of this kind has been done.

What the study aims to find out

  • What do cartoons relating to doctor-patient interactions depict in overt content?
  • What underlying messages can be derived from these overt depictions?
  • How do these messages differ from (or concur with) views in academic and professional sources?


  • Cartoons will be taken from Punch, Private Eye, and the Oldie
  • Academic and professional discourses will be taken from medical textbooks, the annual Harveian oration, and a sample of recent writings from various disciplines.


Material will be coded for concrete, observable behaviours; 'fuzzy' qualities; and location (in the patient (e.g. demands; trustfulness), the doctor (e.g. tells patient what to do; trustworthiness), or their interaction (e.g. conflictual dialogue; trust).
Patterns from cartoons will be described, and compared with those from specialist sources.

Supervisors and candidate

The lead supervisor is Prof Stefan Priebe, co-supervisor is Dr Lutz Sauerteig, a medical historian at Durham University's Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease who specialises in visual, cultural, and ethical analyses of 19th and 20th century medical issues.

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