My research draws from medical sociology and science studies and uses ethnographic and historical methods to address key issues in the for-profit U.S. health care system. I have conducted research on medical technologies, health professions, death and dying, and population health. I am currently working on three major collaborative projects.
With Pamela Prickett, I am doing a fascinating study of unclaimed deaths: people who die without family or with families unwilling or unable to bury them. We are interested in what happens in people's lives that they become unclaimed, how government agencies deal with their bodies and assets, and how certain groups step in to reclaim the unclaimed. This project is about the cultural work abandoned and forgotten dead bodies do in our society.
Second, with UCLA colleague Tanya Stivers, I study, communication between clinicians and, what we call, unfixable patients. Here is a description of the project: In the wake of next generation testing technologies, increased medical specialization, and finicky drugs offering --at best--symptom management, a distinct group of patients populates clinics: the unfixables. Where in the past, these patients with difficult chronic conditions would have been discharged from clinics as unsolvable problems, they now remain under close medical care. They embark on lengthy diagnostic and treatment odysseys; going from test to test, from specialist to specialist, from drug to drug to manage enduring and complicated health issues. Yet, there is no silver bullet, no miracle cure at the end of their journey. The best they can hope for is some more knowledge or some medication with benefits that temporarily outweigh crippling side effects. Mostly, however, they find uncertainty: tests that remain inconclusive, treatments that ricochet through their lives, and an ambivalent future. Treating those patients poses extensive communication challenges. The issue is no longer a question of delivering good or bad news, but of managing uncertainties. This communication is particularly poignant when children are unfixable because they are sentenced to a lifetime of medical care. Drawing primarily from pediatric consultations in genomics and neurology, this project examines how clinicians and parents create long-term care relationships under challenging conditions.
Third, Iddo Tavory and I continue our exploration of the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. This work has a methodological and a theoretical component where we explore semiotics as a methodological toolbox for ethnographers. In addition, I remain interested in social science research on standardization and community spillover effects of lack of health insurance. My goal is to conduct robust qualitative research that reveals the invisible benefits and costs of the U.S. health care system.