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An Anthropological Approach to mHealth: Health & Care in the Smartphone Age

alex.clegg3 March 2022

Open access image by Mohamed Hassan

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

As part of the ASSA project, we are currently working to publish a volume called: ‘An Anthropological Approach to mHealth: Health & Care in the Smartphone Age’. This volume consolidates insights from the team’s various anthropological initiatives in mobile health or ‘m-health’ – health-related uses of the phone – in diverse settings around the world. Drawing from an ethnographic perspective, we seek to contribute an anthropological understanding of mHealth, a growing industry often otherwise dictated by top-down priorities such as bespoke app creation. Instead, building from our own ethnographic insights about older people’s everyday uses of phones, and other studies stressing the evident importance of ‘informal mHealth’ (Hampshire et al., 2021), we illustrate a ‘smart-from-below’ approach which prioritises the everyday appropriation of phones and existing communicative apps for health purposes. We analyse the failures of conventional mHealth initiatives and the emergence of our alternative perspective, and how that led to several initiatives in which team members were themselves involved.

In this book, we offer a grounded ethnographic picture of mHealth in our various research contexts, with a view to broader global trends in population ageing, health and economic crises, the Covid-19 pandemic, declining public investment, increasing phone access, and global migration. This shows the potential of prioritising the everyday appropriation of mobile technologies in line with both social change and longer-standing care norms.. This is intended topromote an anthropological approach to support the relevance and effectiveness of mHealth going forward. We have already created a free online course (available here) for those interested in the topic but hope that the book will benefit other medical anthropologists and ethnographers interested in digital health, as well as digital health practitioners interested in social research around the design, implementation and evaluation of their work.

We have organised the book into three parts, reflecting what anthropology can offer for contextualizing, analysing and informing mHealth. Part one consists of three chapters concerned with contextualizing mHealth;

  • Xinyuan Wang on mHealth practice in mainland China;
  • Shireen Walton on visual digital communications about health during covid in Italy, and
  • Laura Haapio-Kirk on social self-tracking in Japan.

This is followed by contributions analysing mHealth:

  • Daniel Miller on googling for health in Ireland, and the ways it exacerbates existing disparities;
  • Patrick Awondo on the failures of various mHealth initiatives in Yaoundé, Cameroon; and
  • Pauline Garvey outlining the uses of phones to seek information and support around the menopause in Dublin, Ireland.

The volume concludes with three chapters informing specific mHealth initiatives:

  • Alfonso Otaegui’s recommendations for scaling the ‘nurse navigator’ model in public oncological clinics in Chile;
  • Marília Duque’s protocol for meal-logging and WhatsApp communications in Brazil; and
  • Charlotte Hawkin’s and John Mark Bwanika’s work on a digital mental health programme in Uganda.

Taken together, the volume seeks to provide a grounded ethnographic discussion on the challenges and opportunities of anthropology for mHealth, and of seeking health and care in the smartphone age. We aim for publication in 2022 with UCL Press, follow ASSA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to keep updated.

References

Hampshire et al. (2021). Informal mhealth at scale in Africa: Opportunities and challenges. World Development, 139:105257, 1-23

Applying ethnography to digital health aims; challenges and opportunities

charlotte.hawkins.1710 August 2019

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

Photo (CC BY) Charlotte Hawkins

How can a holistic ethnographic understanding of ageing experiences, particularly related to health mobile phone engagement, contribute to an mHealth initiative and improve the accessibility of health services and information through mobile phones? This applied challenge in the ASSA project has initiated partnerships with digital health practitioners in most of our fieldsites – in particular, with collaborators working within existing phone practices. This aligned with our early finding across the fieldsites, that mobile phones are commonly used for health purposes, but through communication on apps evidently most popularly used, such as calls, Facebook and WhatsApp. In Kampala, I worked with The Medical Concierge Group (TMCG), a medical call centre founded by Ugandan medics to improve the accessibility, affordability and quality of healthcare. They offer a 24-hour toll-free phone line, SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook access to a team of doctors and pharmacists and have 50,000 interactions each month. At the time of fieldwork, they were in the process of researching the development a psychiatric call line, or ‘telepsychiatry’. This early stage of service development meant that TMCG were interested in and able to accommodate holistic ethnographic insight in their considerations.

Ethnographic insights included systematic information on 50 low income research participants’ existing mobile phone and mobile health practices as relevant to accessing TMCG services. For example, access to airtime and data is intermittent, with a tendency towards regular low-cost subscriptions. This suggests that calling or using the internet could be inaccessible to users at least once a day. Furthermore, 54% of participants had made health-related calls in the last month, and 27% of their previous three remittances were for health purposes, which confirmed an existing propensity to use mobile phones to support family health – but only across their own network of friends and relatives. Interviews with 50 respondents encountered during the wider ethnography also offered TMCG feedback on mental health perceptions, experiences and help-seeking preferences. These interviews were predominantly with older people, mostly older women, who would not typically opt to engage with research on mental health, and yet who represent an advisory position within their family or community. This also included interviews with health workers, including psychiatric clinicians at the local government hospital, and private health clinicians within the fieldsite. Research showed that treatment for mental illness was perceived to be unavailable, costly, or stigmatised. Often respondents said they prefer to handle mental health problems through prayer or counselling within their community, with hospital treatment sought only once problems become severe. This suggested that optional, confidential, accessible or community-based mental health services could be useful for low-income people in Kampala, if advertised accordingly.

Initially, the wide-reaching interview responses were considered thematically, from causality to treatment seeking, and condensed into representative quotes for presentation back to the team. More recently, alongside the team, these themes have been expanded to inform a draft publication in psychiatric journals, which TMCG hope to use seek further funding. We also hope to further disseminate findings in accessible formats amongst other digital and mental health service providers in Kampala. As familiar to many applied medical anthropologists, translating interpretive, subjective and relativist ethnographic information within positivist, objective and universalist medical paradigms brings challenges, such as risking that complex human experiences and perceptions are reduced into ‘practical’ or digestible concepts (Kleinman, 1982; Scheper-Hughes, 1990). However, this assumes that the health practitioners and their discipline are not open to understanding their patient’s everyday realities, which has not been the case in this instance, perhaps reflecting a particular affinity between anthropology of digital health – appropriation of phone based health services is entirely dependent on their relevance and usefulness for their target populations.

The on-going collaborative process has also highlighted what anthropology might learn from the research and writing processes of health disciplines, for example: ensuring findings are widely disseminated and thus accessibly written; avoiding anecdotal, emotive or biased claims; and ensuring that quantitative statements, “many people said xxx”, are qualified and backed-up. The collaboration has  also confirmed that the flexibility of anthropological research and richness of qualitative insight potentially has much to offer health programmes, to ensure their contextual relevance. In ethnographic research, we have the privilege of time, which comes with in-depth insight, and familiarity with the community – time and understanding which we can offer usefully to other audiences. The data provided can perhaps confirm a hunch of a practitioner from the area but can also surprise them. When documented and publicised, the data encourages practitioners to both tailor their approach, but also allows them to share the specific requirements of their target population, encouraging others to do the same – or hopefully even to offer funding to support them.

 

REFERENCES

Scheper-Hughes, N. Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology. (1990) Social Science & Medicine 30 (2): 189-97.

Kleinman A. The teaching of clinically applied medical anthropology on a psychiatric consultation-laison service. In Clinically Applied Anthropo1ogy: Anthropologists in Health Science Settings (Edited by Crisman N. and Maretzki T.) Reidel. Dordrecht, 1982.