Sociology of Medical Technologies

The democratisation of medical knowledge is a great thing to aspire to, but this post below makes some worrying claims about how social media and technology can improve healthcare. I’ll discuss why we should critically evaluate the social assumptions we make about having lay people access medical information via technology and the problems of relying on social media ratings to make judgements about medical practitioners’ scientific competency.

The Venture Beat article by Sean Mehra enthusiastically embraces the possibilities that new technologies, especially social media, can have on healthcare. Mehra is the head of product at HealthTap, a social platform where the public can have their medical questions answered by professionals. Mehra argues that one technological innovation would be to have a platform where medical doctors can rate other doctors’ competencies.

Universities already do this: educational facilities train and certify medical practitioners. While improving “bedside manner” and social connection with patients is something I’d support, social skills can be better integrated into medical training. Some medical courses require that their students take a humanities class. Nurses, for example, might be asked to take a sociology unit. Medical doctors are not always required to do the same. Having an understanding of social and cultural issues would strengthen patient relationships. 

Sociologist Deborah Lupton has recently posted a critical analysis about the complex relationship between increased access to medical information and public responses to their health. She argues that technologies are never neutral and she unpacks the idea that “information about the body is always better.” Lupton writes that people should question more strenuously how their personal and medical information is used, stored and passed on to third parties via technologies. She notes that self-monitoring of health has many unintended consequences. For example, public spending on healthcare is more easily rolled back once people accept the idea that individuals should look after their own health needs. This means that people who can afford private technologies will have better control of their health (or at the illusion of control). Disadvantaged groups will be further marginalised.

Other social scientists argue that technologies can perpetuate false information leading to poor health decision-making. Technology gives people access to a plethora of medical sources but the public still requires this information to be interpreted by specialists. A Pew Research Centre survey of 3,000 American adults finds that 59% of people go online to find health information, while 70% go to doctor & 60% go to friends. Health, like other spheres of social experience, is mediated through our social networks. Some people may look up health information online and still see a doctor; however, misdiagnosing oneself by reading the wrong information is dangerous.

We don’t fully know whether new technological trends will inadvertently lead some sub-groups to stop going for physical check-ups. Medical anthropology would be useful in this respect, by examining how evolving technologies reshape how we think about our bodies, and how different societies redefine experiences of health in response to innovation.

Social media can potentially improve how people gain health support, but with various technologies and social media platforms, it’s not always easy to know which information we should be listening to. This is why scientific training, professional credentials and peer review remain scientific skills. It’s nice to go to medical professionals who make us feel comfortable; asking health questions on online forums also has its merits. Rating doctors and relying on new technologies without critical consideration are trends that we must continue to question.


Pew study:

Medical anthropology resource:

First published on Science on Google+