The Power of Medical Discourse

Exploring Clinical Drug Trials in the Context of Foucault

Essay, 2012
9 Pages, Grade: 1


In an age where growing technological advances in medicine are met by a population that is increasingly becoming more distanced to the process of medical development and treatment, “the penetration of capital into health care has become a highly contradictory process” (Baer, 2001, p. 49). As a result of pharmaceutical companies evolving more active and sometimes insidious roles within medicine, the organisation of power has shifted from being a relatively equal process between physicians and patients, to one that is now dominated by both medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies. Clinical Drug Trials (CDTs) represent a succinct example of how the biomedical system is inherently structured to maintain power imbalances between medical professionals and patients, with these imbalances manifesting on a socio-cultural and political level. By outlining a brief historical background of the medical movement from the 18th century to modern times and my experience of being a patient in CDTs, I will link my own perceptions and experiences of CDTs to the theories of Foucault and demonstrate how uneven power relations are heavily influenced by concepts of truth, language, and perception. The significance of Foucault’s theories on understanding the various forms and complexities of power within CDTs are shown to be valuable when applying an anthropological framework.

The history of clinical trials is explicitly connected to the development of modern medicine over the 18th and 19th centuries, with the transitioning from medicine being in the domain of religion to that of science (Foucault, 1953, p. 126). Objective facts were discovered with a new technical language to accompany them, home-based medical settings changing to clinical ones, and ultimately new public policies being implemented by governments surrounding the institutionalisation of medicine. By the 19th century, biomedicine had become ‘the standard’ in the Western medical world by which to compare all other medical models through (Lock & Nguyen, 2010, p. 44). It had established normality in society and the specialisation of various medical professions and medical institutions. With the shift to standardised models of explanation and a clinical setting, this opened up the way for CDTs to begin in their modern form. The mixture of profit-driven medical advancements and the saturation of medicines in the world-wide market place meant that CDTs were a viable and profitable business, along with a clinical necessity in a field of increasing medical standards (Petryna, 2005; 2007). This is the environment I found myself in when I decided to participate in my first ‘drug trial’ in New Zealand.

It was the summer of 2007 when I enrolled to become a participant in one of Christchurch Clinical Studies Trust’s (CCST) medical experiments. It was for a newly developed cholesterol medication and all that I needed to know was that I was receiving around $3600 for staying two nights a week, for the next three weeks. I was informed by the doctors about the procedures and the possible physical outcomes of taking the drug, and along with two medical screenings, I was accepted into the trial. From there, I participated in more trials in Christchurch, along with cities in The Netherlands and Belgium. The main distinguishing feature I noticed in these trials, regardless of the place, was a predictable structure followed by doctors and nurses in conducting patient communications, specifically through reducing patients to numbers, sets of symptoms, and test results.

In exploring how my experiences of being in CDTs correspond to theories espoused by Foucault, it is useful to explore three key concepts outlined by the theorist (Foucault, 1963, p. 107-131). These are that an objective ‘truth’ has developed within the medical arena and this has created a hierarchy among those who work and visit clinics, that this new ‘truth’ has adapted a specialised language that reinforces the separation of doctor and patient, and finally the development of a ‘medical gaze’, which is the phenomena of symptomatically looking at patients, and thus objectifying and depersonalising the individual. In relation to my experience of CDTs, I have noticed all three being implemented in various forms and degrees.

The objective truth that has been established through science onto the medical profession is essentially a “dominant discourse within society” (Foucault, 1997, p. 115). This truth, in the form of anatomy, physiology, and pathology, is the discourse that has been educated into society’s collective consciousness as something infallible (Lock & Nguyen, 2010, p. 29). Foucault has likened this to a panopticon, whereby all parts are visible from a single point (Foucault, 1997, p. 117). The point is medical science and doctors, along with pharmaceutical companies and CDTs faculty, are the representation of medical truth and hold a considerable form of power through having this knowledge.


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The Power of Medical Discourse
Exploring Clinical Drug Trials in the Context of Foucault
Massey University, New Zealand
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power, medical, discourse, exploring, clinical, drug, trials, context, foucault
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Lee Hooper (Author), 2012, The Power of Medical Discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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