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The Stages of Sickness Experience

stages of sickness experience. A hand holding a glass of water and a hand holding pills.

In the last post, I talked about how people act when they are sick, which is called the sick role. Now, I’d like to continue talking about being sick and focus on the stages of sickness experience.

Some researchers believe that your experience of being sick is made up of stages. One researcher came up with these 4 stages: onset, diagnosis, patient status, and recovery. The stage of onset is when the disease “starts” and the person starts experiencing symptoms. The stage of diagnosis is when the person receives a diagnosis. The stage of patient status has to do with the person taking on the sick role. And the recovery stage is when the person recovers from the disease.

But there are some problems with these stages. For example, if someone has a disease but is not experiencing any symptoms, then the concept of onset doesn’t make sense. And the diagnosis stage may not apply in some situations–for example, in some cultures, you are not given a diagnosis. The stage of patient status is problematic as well, because not everyone who is sick will take on the sick role. And the recovery stage may not apply to all situations. For example, people with chronic or terminal illnesses will not recover. So, these stages of illness experience do not always match up to what people actually experience.

Stages of sickness experience. A cartoon drawing of a sick person and 2 medical providers.

5 Stages of Sickness Experience

So, are there really identifiable stages of sickness experience? Here are some other stages of illness experience that another researcher came up with. These are called Suchman’s Five Stages of Illness Behavior, and they are widely accepted.

The first stage is the experience of symptoms. This is when the person starts having symptoms, like pain or changes in their functioning. But some people will ignore their symptoms, or think that these symptoms are nothing to worry about.

The second stage is the assumption of the sick role. This is when the sick person takes on the sick role. The sick person receives social support from others, and they may be exempted from fulfilling certain social roles because they are sick. But exactly what responsibilities the sick person is exempted from can differ by culture.

The third stage is medical care contact. This is when the person seeks medical treatment, and the medical professional validates the person’s sickness experience as a disease. But, this process is different in different cultures. For example, in some cultures, the person may decide to treat themselves rather than seeking out a professional for certain illnesses. And in other cultures, the rest of the family may need to agree to treatment–the individual does not make that decision on their own.

The fourth stage is the dependent-patient stage. This is when the sick person becomes a patient of a medical professional. The patient is supposed to follow the advice of the medical professional, including taking part in treatment.

The fifth stage is the recovery or rehabilitation stage. This is when the sick person recovers from their illness and is no longer occupying the sick role. Different cultures have different ways of marking the end of the sick role, which may include rituals and ceremonies. For example, in some places in the United States, a cancer patient may ring a bell to indicate that their treatment is complete. If the person is not able to recover from their illness, then there is a readjustment period.

Learn More

Think about the last time you were sick. Did you go through these 5 stages proposed by Edward Suchman? To read more about these 5 stages of illness experience, check out this article.

Thanks for reading!