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The place of WhatsApp in the ecology of care

Marilia Duque E S26 August 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Dr. Gusso uses WhatsApp Business at Amparo Health Clinic (Photo: Marilia Duque)

In 2015 a PwC research report suggested that the Brazilian m-health market would reach $ 46.6 million while a GSMA report forecasted that 45.7 million Brazilians would benefit from mobile health projects (see here). In 2017 the scenario was even more optimistic. According to Statista, Brazil was expected to become the largest m-health market in Latin America with revenues of around $ 0.7 billion. These numbers explain the impressive amount of m-Heath startups and startup Incubators I’ve seen in Sao Paulo (see Eretz.bio, for example). But they don’t explain why after 7 months of fieldwork I still couldn’t find the people who are actually using these m-health apps. Instead, I found an intensive use of WhatsApp among my informants, filling the gaps in communication and making a huge impact on the ecology of care which we address in this project.

For example, every day early in the morning, Ms. M (54) sends a good morning message through WhatsApp to four lady-friends older than her. “It is like volunteer work because I know they are lonely and that message will make them happy and socially connected”, she explained. Ms. D (66) also starts her day sending a WhatsApp message. But in her case, the message is sent to her only daughter who lives in France, as a sign that she spent the night well. She is supposed to send this message every day before 10am otherwise her daughter will call a friend to check on her. “Some people say my daughter abandoned me, but the truth is that she is closer than many of my friends’ children who just live nearby”.

That is the same in the case of Dr. J., a physician who works in Sao Paulo and uses WhatsApp to take care of his 93 year-old father. After having a stroke, his father moved to Dr. J. brother’s house located two hours away.  Dr. J. created a WhatsApp group to talk to his brother and to his father’s caregiver. He gives her all the instructions she needs, and she updates him with information such as what his father ate, how he slept, how much water he drank, how much he exercised and how he was feeling. After a few months, he could tell how improved his father was and he explained how WhatsApp helped him and his family to feel safe and engaged.

Dr. K. also uses WhatsApp to provide care at distance. He works in my field site as a generalist providing ambulatory care to old people. WhatsApp allows him to give orientation about what to do when patients don’t feel well, and he can also ask them to go to his office if necessary. In many cases, he said, he can solve problems providing only care at distance. Dr. K. believes that the simple fact that the patients know they can use WhatsApp to contact him makes them feel safe and comfortable.

WhatsApp is also helping clinics to manage people’s health. Amparo Health, for example, is a clinic that uses WhatsApp Business to connect patients to doctors. The patient pays a monthly fee to have access to low-cost exams and to specialists like ophthalmologists, gynecologists, dermatologists, nutritionists and psychologists. What is new here is that all procedures and exams are coordinated by a generalist, who is available on WhatsApp. Dr. Gusso, the head physician at Amparo Health, explains that because the clinic business model is based on membership, they have no interest in demanding unnecessary exams or appointments. Doctors are paid by the hour and not by performance and that includes time to answer WhatsApp messages during the morning and afternoon. At the end of the day, he said, they are using WhatsApp to provide care at a distance, helping people to stay healthy, to feel safe and to save money. Prevent Senior, a health insurance company, also uses WhatsApp to make patients’ lives easier. In cases where treatments require on-going medication, patients can use WhatsApp to ask for new prescriptions. They can receive their prescriptions at home or they can go to the doctor office to get them, but with no need to schedule an appointment.

WhatsApp is the primary method of communication for 96% of Brazilians with access to smartphones. And among my informants older than 60 years old, that is also the app they use the most. Now imagine what can be achieved if WhatsApp features are explored to make the communication between health insurance companies, doctors, patients, caregivers, family and friends healthier too.

Infrastructures of Care

Laura Haapio-Kirk19 April 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

Someone recently told me about how he encourages his 86-year-old mother, whom he lives with, to use her home blood pressure monitor every day and record her readings in a notebook. He said that doctors had prescribed her medication to lower her blood pressure, which she did not like to take. His solution was to turn to traditional Japanese medicine which he explained is tailored to the individual’s body, rather than western medicine which relies on a universal concept of the body. He was able to track the success of this approach through the home monitoring kit, and now her blood pressure is back to normal. This story reveals how infrastructures of care are made up of various integrated systems – that blockages in the form of non-adherence may reveal alternative routes by which people navigate care and self-care.

I am part of a reading group at Osaka University hosted by Gergely Mohacsi and Atsuro Morita. A few weeks ago we discussed Morita’s recent co-edited volume called ‘Infrastructure and Social Complexity’ (Harvey, Bruun, Morita 2017). He explained that a recent focus on infrastructure in social sciences, indeed an ‘infrastrucutural turn’ in anthropology, is a result of infrastructures becoming increasingly precarious and therefore more visible. Ageing infrastructures are becoming more and more tangible as we bump up against cracks in roads and other markers of decay. Infrastructures are systems that should enable things to flow, whether that’s water, electricity, goods, or people. But what happens when people are disconnected from infrastructures, or for whatever reason the flow is blocked?

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

I began to think about how smartphones are integral to navigating many of the infrastructures that enmesh us, for example through maps that visually place you within an infrastructure of roads, or health apps that extend the infrastructure of a national health service towards more individualised care. However, as digital technology becomes more integral to health services will people with limited access (through lack of digital literacy, or affordability for example) face increased marginalisation from infrastructures of care? And how are health professionals to identify blockages in the flow of care before it’s too late for individual patients? In such cases where care is not received, it is not only the infrastructure which is revealed to be vulnerable, but individuals themselves.

A couple of days after the seminar I happened to read a newly published article titled ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ (Weiner and Will 2018) in which the authors use the concept of care infrastructure to look at the variety of people, things and spaces involved in self-monitoring using a blood pressure device. Their work reveals self-monitoring as a socio-material arrangement that expresses care for self and for others, as opposed to focusing only on the individual and the device: “Specifically, our analysis has drawn attention to the range of local actors and work involved in the practice of self-monitoring, even in the case of consumer technologies. Through this attention to work, monitoring may also come to be seen as involving not just data, but also care amongst kin, family and colleagues.” My intention for my research was always to look at smartphones as situated within wider practices and things including other technologies and people, but thinking specifically in terms of infrastructure expands my scope and gives rise to questions about how multi-layered flows are connected (or not), ranging from state level, to family based care.

References

Harvey, P., Jensen, C. B.Morita, A. (2017). Infrastructure and Social Complexity. Routledge

Weiner, K. and Will, C (2018) ‘Thinking with care infrastructures: people, devices and the home in home blood pressure monitoring’ in Sociology of Health and Illness 40: 270–282. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.12590.