Digital Health: Sociological Perspectives
Digital technologies are increasingly being developed, implemented and used in the delivery of health and care, contributing to potentially disruptive changes in how healthcare is practised and experienced by health professionals, patients and those within their wider care networks. The following extract is from the introduction to a new special issue of Sociology of Health and Illness, edited by Flis Henwood and Benjamin Marent, now free to access until the end of 2019:
‘Digital health’ is both easy and hard to define, not least because of its close relationship to other broad terms such as ‘e‐health’ or more specific terms that might be seen as sub‐sets of digital health, such as ‘telehealth’, ‘telemedicine’ or ‘mobile health’, which imply more mobile forms of care. Several definitions have been put forward by sociologists seeking to make sense of digital health (Lupton 2018a, Petersen 2019). Lupton, for example, has described digital health as ‘a wide range of technologies directed at delivering healthcare, providing information to lay people and helping them share their experiences of health and illness, training and educating healthcare professionals, helping people with chronic illnesses to engage in self‐care and encouraging others to engage in activities to promote their health and well‐being and avoid illness’ (Lupton 2018a, p. 1).
She and others have also identified the range of technologies and/or the various theoretical approaches that have contributed to our understanding of digital health in attempts to map the field (see, e.g., Lupton 2016b, 2017, 2018a, Petersen 2019). These contributions serve as important reminders of the depth and breadth of the digital health field and its constitution in different disciplines and have provided clear insights into the ways in which digital devices are becoming increasingly embedded in healthcare organisations and care delivery. These include attention to the mutually constitutive relationship between digital technologies and healthcare practices. Despite this, there remains a tendency in many digital health studies to ‘read off’ from the functionalities or capacities of specific digital devices to assess their likely implications for healthcare or to attribute transformations in healthcare delivery to devices without any clear analysis of how digital technologies are implicated in the (re)configuration of healthcare practices. One of the main motivations for us in putting together this collection was to examine this question more directly.
At this point, we must locate ourselves more fully. As sociologists working at the boundary of sociology of health and science and technology studies (STS), our main interest is with exploring understandings of digital health at the intersection of these two fields. We do this by reflecting, briefly, on how technology has been understood in both sociology of health and STS and suggest that socio‐material approaches and practice theories provide a shared space within which productive tensions between sociology of health and STS continue to be addressed. The rest of this editorial introduction can be read for free, here.
With contributions from international scholars in the field, papers in this collection explore diverse fields of healthcare (reproductive health, primary care, diabetes management, mental health) within which heterogenous technologies (health apps, mobile platforms, smart textiles, time-lapse imaging) are becoming increasingly embedded. They offer insights into the promissory discourses that constitute digital health and the ways in which knowledge, connectivity and power are re-configured in a range of situated health and care practices. All the papers in this special issue are all free to access until the end of 2019:
- Understanding digital health: Productive tensions at the intersection of sociology of health and science and technology studies
Flis Henwood and Benjamin Marent
- Digitising psychiatry? Sociotechnical expectations, performative nominalism and biomedical virtue in (digital) psychiatric praxis
- Is digital health care more equitable? The framing of health inequalities within England’s digital health policy 2010–2017
Emma Rich, Andy Miah and Sarah Lewis
- Navigating the cartographies of trust: how patients and carers establish the credibility of online treatment claims
Alan Petersen, Claire Tanner and Megan Munsie
- General Practitioner’s use of online resources during medical visits: managing the boundary between inside and outside the clinic
Fiona Stevenson, Laura Hall, Maureen Sequin, Helen Atherton, Rebecca Barnes, Geraldine Leydon, Catherine Pope, Elizabeth Murray and Sue Ziebland
- The vaccination debate in the “post‐truth” era: social media as sites of multi‐layered reflexivity
Dino Numerato, Lenka Vochocová, Václav Štětka and Alena Macková
- Making sense with numbers. Unravelling ethico‐psychological subjects in practices of self‐quantification
Jeannette Pols, Dick Willems and Margunn Aanestad
- On digital intimacy: redefining provider–patient relationships in remote monitoring
Enrico Maria Piras and Francesco Miele
- Temporalities of mental distress: digital immediacy and the meaning of ‘crisis’ in online support
Ian M. Tucker and Anna Lavis
- Smart textiles: transforming the practice of medicalisation and health care
- ‘Built for expansion’: the ‘social life’ of the WHO’s mental health GAP Intervention Guide
China Mills and Eva Hilberg
- Algorithmic assemblages of care: imaginaries, epistemologies and repair work
- The datafication of reproduction: time‐lapse embryo imaging and the commercialisation of IVF
Lucy van de Wiel
About the Editors
Flis Henwood is Professor of Social Informatics at the University of Brighton, UK. She has a background in the sociology of health and science and technology studies and has published widely on the relationship between information, technology and care.
Benjamin Marent is Research Fellow at the University of Brighton, UK. He has a background in sociology of health and is currently working in the area of digital health, working with developers and users to explore the complexity and ambivalence at play when digital technologies are embedded in practices of health and medicine.
Sociology of Health and Illness is an international journal which publishes sociological articles on all aspects of health, illness and medicine. We welcome empirical and theoretical contributions in this field. In addition to the seven regular issues published each year, subscribers receive a free special issue. These themed issues aim to identify and contribute to new areas of debate and research in the discipline and each issue is devoted to an important topic of current interest.