Towards a critical sociology of digital health technologies

A recent research interest of mine is the emergence of ‘digital health’ (otherwise known as Health 2.0, Medicine 2.0, eHealth or mHealth) as central to healthcare and public health policies in developed countries. Digital health technologies include using mobile wireless devices and social media to gather data on health-related behaviours or to encourage people to take up health promoting behaviours, using Web 2.0 devices to seek out information on health-related matters and to contribute to this information, telemedicine, digital medical records and disease-monitoring systems.

There are now many articles in the news media and medical and public health literature that enthusiastically promote digital health as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘disruptive’ to traditional approaches to healthcare and public health. As a sociologist, I have sought to interrogate the assumptions underlying discourses on digital health technologies and to identify the social, cultural and political dimensions of the digital health phenomenon. I have recently written several academic pieces about digital health technologies, as well as a number of blog posts.

Two articles have focused on their use as part of health promotion, quantifying the body and self-tracking (see here and here). Another article looks at the concept of what I have termed ‘the digitally engaged patient’ in relation to the employment of digital technologies in recent telemedicine initiatives . I have also written about the commodification of patient experience data uploaded to patient support websites and the use of Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory to theorise digital health. The most recent piece returns to the subject of what I call ‘digitised health promotion’.

One of my central arguments is that despite the representation of technologies as inert, neutral objects participating in the collection of data in the interests of health promotion and medical self-care, from a critical perspective such objects may be viewed as actively shaping the subjects/bodies of those who use them. Technologies discipline and order bodies in certain ways, just as bodies discipline and order technologies. They are not politically neutral, but rather are implicated in a dense web of power relations. Using medical and other technologies to peer inside the body is part of a mentality that assumes that more information about the body is always better.

There are a number of central themes that come together in the critical sociology of digital health phenomenon. These include examination of the technologies themselves that are part of Web 2.0 and the Internet of Things, including ubiquitous computing (devices that are mobile and wireless), wearable devices and embedded sensors in devices, as well as the ‘big data’ that are produced from digital technologies. Other themes are the emphasis on personal responsibility for self-care and self-monitoring in telemedical and health promotion programs, the withdrawal of the state from alleviating socioeconomic disadvantage and the promise of control over the body, disease and expenditure that is regularly articulated in discourses on digital technologies. Also important are the contributions of the discourse of ‘healthism’, or the assumption that good health should be privileged over other priorities in people’s lives, and the lure of techno-utopian and data-utopian discourses generally that promote digital technologies as the means by which good health and financial savings may be achieved. Surveillance, whether voluntary, imposed or coercive, is another central dimension of using the new digital health technologies.

Now that computers are wearable upon and can even be inserted into the body or ingested as pills, and are used as part of medical care and preventive health strategies, a new set of possibilities and limitations have been generated in relation to the ways that we think about and use these technologies. I argue that digital health discourses work to draw attention from the social determinants of health and support victim-blaming of those who are ill or viewed as not successfully managing health risks. They promote the myth that ‘clean’, ‘controlled’ technologies allow containment of the ‘messiness’ of human disease and bodily disorder.

Furthermore, digital health technologies discipline bodies in certain ways and configure a set of obligations concerning acting upon the data that they generate. Privacy and discrimination issues also need to be identified and acknowledged, given that digital monitoring devices potentially allow healthcare providers, health promoters, employers and health insurance companies to gain access to data on users’ bodily functions and activities in fine-grained detail. Greater attention needs to be paid to the moral, political and ethical dimensions of the digital health phenomenon.

5 thoughts on “Towards a critical sociology of digital health technologies

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