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Sociology, biomedicine and health

August 11, 2011

University of York – by Andrew Webster

The University of York’s Science and Technology Studies Unit (SATSU) has three research themes: the sociology of the biosciences, social informatics, and governance and regulation of new technologies. Within the area of health (the sociology of the biosciences) it has an active research programme directed at understanding the influences shaping the clinical, regulatory and commercial development of the new biosciences, especially in the fields of regenerative medicine/stem cells, the new genetics and pharmacogenetics. It also has an interest in e-health (such as telemedicine) and its implementation in clinical and non-clinical settings.

In regard to regenerative medicine, SATSU has coordinated a national programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), covering contemporary economic, clinical and regulatory issues. This programme explored the dynamics of translational medicine, innovation and regulatory issues at an international level. One of our projects has examined the growth of biological standards in the field and how these are stabilised across science labs, and the long- term implications this has for issues such as patient safety. In addition, SATSU coordinates a major European Commission FP7 grant (REMEDiE) on regenerative medicine as well as another on xenotransplantation and citizen participation in policy making. A related ESRC project on the emergence of commercial cord blood banking began in January 2009; this will examine new forms of consumption, parental responsibility and the changing balances between public and commercial bioscience.

With respect to pharmacogenetics – the relationship between individual genetic variation and drug response – SATSU has been funded over the past five years by different bodies (the UK Department of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the EC) to examine the social, ethical and regulatory dimensions affecting the introduction of such technologies into healthcare systems. Our interest in genetics and therapeutic regimes is set within a wider sociological context of the sociotechnical construction of new technologies, particularly in the area of healthcare and the role of expectations and different conceptions of how particular technologies might be introduced, and how these may shape the development and introduction of genetics-based medical technologies. A recently completed project supported by a Hull York Medical School Pump Priming Award examined ‘Molecular diagnostics and clinical effectiveness: innovation, communication and clinical decision-making’ in the haematology field (in collaboration with Health Sciences and Hull/ Leeds Haematological Malignancy Diagnostic Service contacts).

A surgical team at work. Wellcome Library

A surgical team at work. Wellcome Library

The Sociology Department at York is also deeply involved in two areas of health-related research: conversation analysis and medical sociology. A current project on ‘Communication and risk in surgery’ explores the communication dynamics of surgical teams as they perform procedures. By drawing from a qualitative method in sociology to study how we use language to establish and negotiate interpersonal relationships, we intend to identify key patterns in the talk of the surgical team at points at which issues of risk and patient safety become salient. By examining the linguistic and pragmatic procedures through which surgical teams identify contingent and routine difficulties, and coordinate group or individual responses, we will be able formally to describe those largely tacit or unseen interpersonal dynamics associated with high-risk moments in surgery. These kinds of findings can inform both evaluation of surgical procedures and training for members of surgical teams. We are currently in negotiation with anaesthetists and surgeons in one of the UK’s leading university hospitals to secure access and data.

Andrew Webster is Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of York, where he is also the Academic Coordinator of Social Sciences.

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