Conceptualizing the digitalization of healthcare work: A metaphor-based Critical Interpretive Synthesis

Chiara Carboni*, Rik Wehrens, Romke van der Veen, Antoinette de Bont

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
15 Downloads (Pure)


The digitalization of healthcare work has gained center stage in academic debates spanning disciplines as diverse as medicine, sociology and STS. The different analytical interests and methodological traditions of these three strains of scholarship have, however, resulted in quite diverging approaches to this issue. Points of interest have ranged from the (disattended) promise of increased efficiency of healthcare work, to dynamics of task delegation, (re-)professionalization and (re-)distribution of invisible work, to the disruption of informal organization. Instead of studying these dynamics in practice, in this paper we foreground the potentiality for theory-making inherent in the systematic cross-contamination of different theoretical and disciplinary perspectives. We perform a Critical Interpretive Synthesis (CIS) centering the ways the digitalization of healthcare work has been investigated in recent STS, sociological and medical literature. To open up assumptions and insights intrinsic to each body of literature for scholars and practitioners in other fields, we propose here a metaphor-based variation on CIS approaches. We probe, in turn, what slime molds can teach us about STS's focus on interconnections and materiality, how we can better understand sociological analyses of invisible work exploring them through theatrical performances, and which lessons river engineering offers concerning medical scholarship's discussion of efficiency and proper healthcare work. Thinking through these metaphors, we conceptualize the digitalization of healthcare work as a phenomenon spanning, at once, the directionality of technological innovation trajectories and the open-endedness of situated changes in work practices. Based on our analysis, we propose focusing on technological scripts, and various forms of invisible work and informal organization as entry points into the study of the tension between directionality and open-endedness in the context of the digitalization of healthcare work.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114572
Pages (from-to)114572
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date18 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

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Copyright © 2021 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.


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