The "hypochondriac" is a complicated figure, often treated with scorn and derision, resented for making excessive demands on attention and health care resources. Lacking credibility but needing to be taken seriously, the hypochondriac is most doctors' least favorite patient. Yet people who suffer from hypochondria endure the anxiety of suspecting they are seriously ill, or are about to be, and having their suspicions and their suffering dismissed as baseless.
Catherine Belling, author of the new book, A Condition of Doubt: The Meanings of Hypochondria, seeks to change the way Americans think about hypochondria, and to use hypochondria as a lens to sharpen our thinking about health care. Belling argues that contemporary hypochondria should be understood less as mental illness in particular patients than as a rational if maladaptive condition emerging from gaps between doctors' and patients' expectations of contemporary Western medicine.
In addition, Belling claims that over the last half-century, patients have become more open to uncertainty and ambiguity but medicine has not, and claims that hypochondria--as a shared cultural condition--can be addressed by rethinking both patients' expectations of medical omniscience and physicians' need to meet such expectations. Belling would urge for a reconceptualizing of hypochondria and, more broadly, reconceptualizing medicine's orientation toward the unknown.