Patients Making Meaning: Epistemologies of the Ill and Recovering

In this new project, situated in the field of Rhetoric of Health and Medicine (RHM), my co-authors (Cathryn Molloy and Jamie White-Farnham) and I hope to learn what types of documents and other material artifacts actually work to help patients understand their illness, make them feel supported, and help them make meaning from their medical situation. Our goal is to show how these documents and artifacts achieve certain effects in order to put forward recommendations to medical practitioners, community partners, and those who interact with the ill and recovering about how best to inform and support patients.

When diagnosed with an illness, particularly when chronic, patients can be overwhelmed by all the written materials they receive from doctors, support groups, and even from loved ones. These materials, while intended to inform, help, and support the patient, can have a variety of epistemological consequences: the results of rhetorical knowledge-making often unintended by the author/creator of the document. For instance, a list of local wig shops provided in an information packet to a new chemotherapy patient might be intended as a supportive resource by the nurse who compiled it, but instead it forces patients, perhaps prematurely, to confront their identity as a person about to lose their hair and the knowledge that they might be expected to cover up their balding head.  This understanding is more than a rhetorical effect of certain words or phrases; the document overall changes the patient’s world as they once knew it: an epistemological consequence. This book seeks to uncover the reality of those consequences and investigate the question: how do patients interact with these materials, and what sort of materials do help patients make meaning (in positive ways) from their illness?

The authors/researchers will collect and analyze (1) a variety of artifacts patients receive when diagnosed with or recovering from illnesses intended to help them understand their illness, including print materials from doctors, support group and non-profit organizational brochures and other print and digital materials; and more ephemeral items such as “get well” cards, text messages, and/or other print and digital missives from friends and loved ones; and (2) survey data from patients describing their perspectives about and experiences with these kinds of materials. By including these two kinds of analyses, the book will contribute to both academic rhetorical and medical communities.

Soon, we’ll be recruiting participants to take our survey. You’ll find a link here, along with IRB approval. Check back soon for more information.