Digital Health and Technological Promise: A Sociological Inquiry

January 7, 2019

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What is ‘digital health’? And, what are its implications for medicine and healthcare, and for individual citizens and society? ‘Digital health’ is of growing interest to policymakers, clinicians, and businesses.


It is underpinned by promise and optimism, with predictions that digital technologies and related innovations will soon ‘transform’ medicine and healthcare, and enable individuals to better manage their own health and risk and to receive a more ‘personalised’ treatment and care. 


Offering a sociological perspective, this book critically examines the dimensions and implications of ‘digital health’, a term that is often ill defined, but signifies the promise of technology to ‘empower’ individuals and improve their lives as well as generating efficiencies and wealth.


The chapters explore relevant sociological concepts and theories; changing conceptions of the self-evident in citizens’ growing use of wearables, online behaviours and patient activism; changes in medical practices, especially precision (or ‘personalised’) medicine and growing reliance on ‘big data’ and algorithm-driven decisions; the character of the digital healthcare economy; and the perils of ‘digital health’. 


It is argued that, for various reasons, including the way digital technologies are designed and operate and the influence of big technology companies and other interests seeking to monetise citizens’ data, ‘digital health’ is unlikely to deliver much of what is promised.


Citizens’ use of digital technologies is likened to a Faustian bargain: citizens are likely to surrender something of far greater value (their personal data) than what they obtain from their use.


However, growing data activism and calls for ‘algorithmic accountability’ highlight the potential for citizens to create alternative futures—ones oriented to fulfilling human needs rather than techno-utopian visions.


This ground-breaking book will provide an invaluable resource for those seeking to understand the socio-cultural and politico-economic implications of digital health.


Book Reviews



'This book is different from anything you have read about digital health before: Alan Petersen offers a novel, irreverent, and sobering take on digital health. Drawing upon debates from an impressively wide range of fields and disciplines, he teaches us to stop seeing technologies as the drivers of change, but instead to treat them as illustrations of political decisions that we have made, and of needs and inequities that we have ignored. In short, it tells the story of a political economy in which "disruption" has become a word of praise.'


- Barbara Prainsack, Professor of Comparative Policy Analysis, Department of Political Science, University of Vienna, Austria


'Alan Petersen provides an impressive overview of current challenges at the intersection of health, data and digital technologies. The book urges its readers to move beyond techno-utopian promises typically endorsed by policymakers and warns against entering what Petersen likens to a Faustian bargain, where citizens surrender their most intimate data in exchange for access to technologies that serve purposes other than their health, well-being and privacy.' 


- Klaus Høyer, Professor of Medical Science and Technology Studies, Institute of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Denmark


'Petersen provides a nuanced sociological account of what digitalisation in its many guises might mean for the provision of healthcare. Resisting deterministic accounts from policy makers and those selling digital solutions, Petersen offers a way of understanding the present and the future that takes the past seriously. This book is important not only for those interested in digital health but for everyone concerned with the future of society in a world populated by people and digital technologies.'


- Sally Wyatt, Professor of Digital Cultures in Development, Technology and Society Studies, Maastricht University, Netherlands


'In this insightful book Alan Petersen offers a timely sociological analysis of the dimensions and implications of "digital health." His conclusion is telling – that "digital health" is unlikely to deliver much of what is promised – but he also highlights the potential for citizens to create alternative futures aimed at meeting human needs rather than techno-utopian visions. For anyone interested in this key development in medicine and health care this book is highly recommended.' 


- Jonathan Gabe, Professor of Sociology, Centre for Public Services and Policy, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


About the Author


Alan Petersen is Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, at Monash University in Melbourne. He researches and publishes in the sociology of health and medicine, science and technology studies, and gender studies. His recent books include Hope in Health: The Socio-Politics of Optimism (2015) and Stem Cell Tourism and the Political Economy of Hope (2017).


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