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Patients as ethnographers
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  1. John Launer
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, Health Education England, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1H 5DN, UK; johnlauner{at}aol.com

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I recently spent 2 weeks as an inpatient on a hospital ward. It was not an experience I would have chosen, but I had several advantages by comparison with many of the other patients. I was ambulant for most of the time. As a doctor, I was able to understand many of the technical details of my condition and its treatment. By a strange coincidence, a colleague and friend of mine was also admitted to the same ward a few days after me, so we could support each other. As we are both involved professionally in healthcare education and organisational development, we were able to exchange our reflections on what was going on around us, including the way that the patients, nurses, doctors and other staff interacted with one another.

During one of our conversations on the ward, I came up with the playful idea that we could raise our spirits – and perhaps relieve our anxieties—by regarding ourselves not as patients but as undercover ethnographers, engaged to observe how a modern hospital ward functions. This fantasy cheered us up for the remainder of our time there. It also led us to think how patients could potentially perform a valuable role in carrying out informal ethnographic research during their time in hospital. Patients are, after all, both the recipients of care and—in their own interests – very precise observers of this from minute to minute and day to day. What they notice around them could provide useful information about how hospitals operate in reality, and contribute to improving services.

Ethnography, by definition, is the study of cultures—in the widest sense of the …

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