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Computers, Medicine, and Rhetoric

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This article is about computers, medicine, and rhetoric. I would find it quite spooky when those items or products that I showed some interest in while online shopping would randomly appear on my laptop screen. It would look like a ghostly reminder that I subconsciously desire something and I should buy it. One day I asked my husband, who is a computer scientist, how come my computer knows about the things that I am interested in or I like because all the advertisements that appear on my screen are of those products? “This is what I am doing these days” was the answer. On my demand he explained his project that he was working on then.

He gathered data of around 3,000 Twitter profiles of the individuals who were using expert medical terminology regarding Diabetes. While individually identifying profiles of 100 doctors, he created a sample by identifying some professional medical key terms that were frequently used. On the basis of the sample, he generalized that all those who were using such specialized terms were medical doctors. In another study, he also gathered data on “non-doctor experts” who were either patients or caregivers who showed awareness about the disease but the language used was non-professional.  Identifying both these groups—“doctor experts” and “non-doctor experts” he proposed an app that would recommend twitter users to access the experts’ (either doctor expert or non-doctor expert) profiles and follow them on twitter for discussion or advice about Diabetes.

I told him that he was kind of doing a discourse analysis but the model that he applied on the basis of his sample could be challenged. For instance, I asked, what if a doctor expert is intentionally using layperson’s language to make her / his tweets more accessible, or what if a layperson is using expert terminology because they had read enough on their own about the disease and were comfortable using the expert terminology (now I can name that activity as “literate activity,” using Prior’s notion)? He thought for a while and said, “Well our accuracy test for the sample was 90% and not 100%.” I concluded the discussion saying, “That doesn’t answer my question.”

All this discussion happened well before I ventured into our “Rhetorical Explorations of Health and Medicine’s Publics.” Having read the articles under our “Methodology” section, I constantly kept thinking about the aforementioned discussion that I have had with my husband. He could not answer my question for the simple reason that he is not trained in rhetoric but my readings help me conclude that interdisciplinary his endeavor already was—computer and medicine—he also needed Rhetoric that could help him realize the limitation that his proposed application for “expert recommendation” has.  

Scott’s article “Extending Rhetorical-Cultural Analysis: Transformation of Home HIV Testing” served me as a gateway into the interdisciplinary relationship between rhetoric, cultural studies, and medicine. While reflecting on my experience of “ghost recommendations” on my laptop and my husband’s non-rhetorical discourse analysis, I understand how a “hybrid methodology” (350) could maximize the usefulness of the tools that recommendation systems are creating.

Bellwoar’s “Everyday Matters: Reception and Use as Productive Design of Health Related Texts” also helped me reflect on my experiences. Patients and caregivers who are involved in the “literate activity” (328) might well be using a medical register by appropriating the language and gradually transforming it. It is hard to generalize on the basis of language use, on Twitter for instance, the stage of register use the user is at. Whether they are at the consuming stage where they might be deliberately using the register to show their awareness about the disease or a health condition, or at the stage when they have learnt to appropriate the language. Or conversely, what if the medical experts are “recontextualizing” (Kelly) the discourse to reach a wider audience?

I remember when I was diagnosed (falsely) with hypothyroidism. I did a lot of research on my own about the disease. I even came to know about the proper name of the disease during my research as the doctor just said, “you show symptoms of thyroid.” My initial blood reports showed Hyperthyroid while my symptoms were those of Hypothyroid. I read the report (my research helped me do that) and showed my concern to the doctor. Instead of answering me he asked, ”Are you a medical student or you have had your report read by another doctor?” To cut the story short, I saved myself from wrong medication that the doctor could have prescribed on the basis of what the report said as he had already forgotten what my symptoms were.  “Public Voices in Pharmaceutical Deliberation” by Teston et al has strengthened my conviction that patients should have all the right to know exactly what their disease is, what are the available medications and what medicines would they prefer. In my own case, my ignorance about the falsely diagnosed disease could end in irreparable damage.

To synthesize, all the diverse methodologies that the rhetoricians of medicine employ, one way or the other not only help in strengthening the discourse but their cross-disciplinary nature can practically bring positive change in diverse fields. My focus at the moment is: What can be the possible ways I can help my husband incorporate rhetoric in his already hybrid method of recommendation systems?


                                  Read about Electronic Health Record Systems.


About the Author

Dr. Neelam Jabeen is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at International Islamic University (IIU), Islamabad, Pakistan. She received Ph.D. in English Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture from North Dakota State University (NDSU), USA. She has published in medical rhetoric, ecofeminism, and postcolonialism. She specializes in South Asian Fiction.

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