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On patients, doctors and ethnographers: a response to Launer
  1. Robert Power1,
  2. A Jamie Saris2
  1. 1 Office of Research and Innovation, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
  2. 2 Department of Anthropology, Maynooth University, Maynooth, Kildare, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to Dr A Jamie Saris, Department of Anthropology, Rowan House, Maynooth University, Kildare, Ireland; ajamie.saris{at}

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In a recent piece, John Launer calls for ‘patient-led ethnography’ because it ‘could be a rich source of information for improving healthcare’.1 In the spirit of opening up a discussion regarding the value of ethnography for driving improvements in access to care, healthcare quality and patient safety, we would like to offer the following response to Launer. And in an effort to maintain consistency with Launer’s article, we limit the references, with a few exceptions, to the same references he cites in ‘Patients as ethnographers’: namely, Leigh Goodson and Matt Vassar’s (2011) ‘An overview of ethnography in healthcare and medical education research’, alongside Jan Savage’s (2000) ‘Ethnography and health care’.2 3

Launer’s experience of ethnography occurs somewhat accidentally. During a 2-week hospital stay, he comes up with a playful idea to regard himself and his colleague ‘not as patients but as undercover ethnographers, engaged to observe how a modern hospital ward functions’. In crucial respects, a doctor donning the garb of an ethnographer, even in play, marks an important moment in the increasing normalisation of this term in medical settings. Twenty years ago, that same doctor, with the same plan, might have needed ‘ethnographer’ explained to her. Yet, as Hunzinga reminds us, ‘all play means something’, and generally something significant.4 One of the things it means for Launer is a licence to see care from the other side, as it were, a perspective that highlights some of his own unspoken perceptions with which he operates as a medical practitioner, as well as some of the tacit rules by which a hospital ward actually runs. While this movement between the strange and the familiar is a classic anthropological insight, it obscures the central question that Launer accidentally poses: what makes someone an ‘ethnographer’ and/or an insight, ‘ethnographic’. Elaborating these …

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