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Ethnographic Research: Applying Health Communication in Action

By: Mariah LaRue

I’ve seen aspects of health communication apply to my everyday life ever since I started the program at Northwestern, and now that I have just begun a new job at a hospital, I am finding even more ways to apply my health communication expertise. Just recently, I had the chance to test out my ethnographic research skills.

During our human computer interaction class we had a lecture about ethnographic research. Ethnography is a research method in which the researcher studies people in their natural environment. Often, researchers will immerse themselves in the community and observe, taking detailed notes. This research method is used in a variety of different academic disciplines, including health communication.

In Human Computer Interaction we learned about how ethnographic research can be a valuable tool for gaining understanding into the workflows, processes, and workarounds users may employ when using health information technology (HIT). Ethnography can be particularly useful in such cases because often what the users actually do and what the users say they do, don’t always match up. This may be true in a variety of healthcare contexts, not just technology. By observing exactly what the people do, it is possible to identify areas for improvement. When I was initially learning about ethnographic research methods, it was easy to see the value of it from an academic research standpoint, but I was unsure whether I would use the methods in my life. As it turns out, I ended up using a form of this research method before the program even ended.

On my second day of my job I was sent to observe clinical work flows at a primary care clinic. I quickly realized how relevant ethnography could be to my career in healthcare, and I was glad we had talked about it in class. On some level, ethnography is intuitive. After all, you are just supposed to be watching people and observing what they do. Still, I was glad I had the lecture about ethnography techniques, because some parts of it are not completely natural. For example, in lecture we learned about how it is important to make notes of observations of things that are truly happening, and not make judgments. As I was going through my day I realized this was much harder than it sounds. After looking at my notes I realized I made many notes that were more judgments than observations. Had I not had the lecture in class, I may not have been so critical of my observations.

After just one try at conducting ethnographic research, I am sure my methods were not perfect, but it was very empowering to see how a seemingly academic research method could apply so directly to my work in health communication.