Sociological Perspectives on Digital Health

This seminar organised by the Quantified Self Research Network brought together a range of thinkers to discuss sociological perspectives on digital health.

Dr. Conor Farrington (Cambridge) – The Sensemaking Spectrum: Understanding User Interactions with the Artificial Pancreas

The artificial pancreas (AP) is a system for the treatment of diabetes, incorporating a body-mounted glucose sensor and body-mounted insulin pump in conjunction with an algorithm controlling insulin dosage. In common with many new medical technologies, the AP presents users with both opportunities and challenges – opportunities in terms of improved outcomes, and challenges in terms of incorporating new artefacts, systems, and treatments into everyday life. Research on ‘sensemaking’ in the information technology and organisational fields shows that different users, and groups of users, ‘frame’ and ‘make sense’ of (i.e.interpret) technology in different ways, with significant impacts on patterns of use and eventual outcomes. While technology is often assumed to be ‘univocal’ (i.e. meaning the same to all users), sensemaking research reveals the ‘equivocality’ of technology, and the ways in which technology can be interpreted and used in different ways by different users. Likewise, different patients (and groups of patients) often experience the opportunities and challenges presented by new medical technologies in different ways, owing in part to varied understandings of technology, illness, and healthcare, and (more widely) distinctive identities, formed against varied socio-economic, ethnic, educational, and geographical backdrops. These varied sense-making experiences have the potential to generate differences in the way that patients interpret the AP technology and incorporate it into their self-management routines, and thus potential variations in the effectiveness and acceptability of the technology in everyday settings and long-term use and adherence. Likewise, the use of AP technology, in common with the use of new technology in general, may in turn influence and potentially transform users’ wider perceptions of technology, illness, and healthcare, with potential implications for future attitudes towards, and usage of, new medical technologies.

Prof. Deborah Lupton (Canberra) – Critical Digital Health Studies: A Research Agenda

In this presentation I discuss the various elements that comprise the digital health phenomenon and consider the implications for social and cultural analyses of medicine and public health. Most popular and professional representations portray digital health technologies in utopian terms, focusing on the benefits they may offer to healthcare delivery and public health surveillance and illness prevention. Yet, as I have argued in recent work, a critical approach to digital health technologies is important to go beyond instrumental concerns and identify their social, cultural, ethical and political dimensions. I will identify some important questions for a sociological critique of digital health technologies and talk about some of my current research, including analyses of self- tracking technologies, apps as sociocultural artefacts and 3D printing in medicine and health.

Sam Martin (Warwick) – Twitter: Re-Writing The City Landscape With Health Knowledge

There is a huge body of research relating to e-health and the interaction between people’s online engagement and their health practices. Main approaches look at how e-health can be used for medical intervention to promote healthy behaviour and self-management of chronic conditions, and the quality of e-health information on websites and smartphone apps.

However, there is little on how patients self-managing chronic conditions use real-time social media, such as Twitter, as decision-making and risk-aversion tools to navigate the physical environment of the city. In this presentation I discuss how individuals’ online interactions on Twitter inform their health navigation of the city, and how this process performs a re-writing of the city landscape with health knowledge. With the case study of Coeliac Disease, my research explores different ways of analysing and visualising the ways that patients share information about the diagnosis, symptoms and daily self management of chronic illness. I will also discuss how this interaction informs Coeliacs’ evolving identity with food, and different ways that data mining, social network analysis and data visualization techniques can be used to map both textual and visual interaction across cities in a comparative study of activity in London and New York.


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