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Why Do Medical Professional Regulators Dismiss Most Complaints From Members of the Public? Regulatory Illiteracy, Epistemic Injustice, and Symbolic Power


Drawing on an analysis of complaint files that we conducted for the Irish Medical Council (Madden and O’Donovan 2015), this paper offers three possible explanations for the gap between the ubiquity of official commitments to taking patients’ complaints seriously and medical professional regulators’ dismissal—as not warranting an inquiry—of the vast majority of complaints submitted by members of the public. One explanation points to the “regulatory illiteracy” of many complainants, where the remit and threshold of seriousness of regulators is poorly understood by the general public. Another points to possible processes of “institutional epistemic injustice” (Fricker 2007; Anderson 2012) that unjustly undermine the credibility of certain complainants, such as those with low levels of formal education. A third explanation highlights the marginalization of the general public from “symbolic power” (Bourdieu 1989) to define what matters in medical professional regulation. The paper is offered in a spirit of ideas in progress and raising questions rather than definitive insights into the regulatory process.

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Correspondence to Orla O’Donovan.

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O’Donovan, O., Madden, D. Why Do Medical Professional Regulators Dismiss Most Complaints From Members of the Public? Regulatory Illiteracy, Epistemic Injustice, and Symbolic Power. Bioethical Inquiry 15, 469–478 (2018).

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  • Patients’ complaints
  • Medical professional regulation
  • Regulatory illiteracy
  • Institutional epistemic injustice
  • Symbolic power