Eye Tracking in Medical Ethnography: Evaluating Evidence for Perception, Action, and Collaboration in Healthcare Professions

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Using eye tracking in ethnographic research poses numerous theoretical and practical challenges. How might devices originally intended to record individuals' vision of two-dimensional planes be useful in interpersonal contexts with dynamic visual interfaces? What would the technology reveal about collegial environments in which different levels of knowledge and expertise come together and inform decision-making processes? Why would pupil movement show us anything that conventional ethnographic methods could not? In this paper, I argue that these challenges are not intractable. When tailored to specific questions about perception, action, and collaboration, eye trackers can reveal behaviors that elude ethnographers' gaze. In so doing, the devices enrich the observational and interview-based methods already employed in ethnographic studies of workplace dynamics.

Hospitals are a fruitful context in which to test the value of eye-tracking evidence. Healthcare professionals look, interpret, and act on wide-ranging streams of visual information. The focus of this paper is to explore the possibility of carrying out potential fieldwork in pulmonology suites. I put forward a hypothetical eye-tracking framework to interrogate: 1) the different perceptual skillsets exhibited by pulmonologists; 2) the collaborative decision-making practices by which medical teams interpret monitors' bronchoscopic imagery and perform lung biopsies. According to this model, optical evidence (i.e., fixation durations, scan paths, and heat maps) could demonstrate not only how healthcare professionals look at visual interfaces; the evidence could be especially useful to show when and where vision runs aground. Such gaps in eye-tracking data illuminate additional sensory systems which facilitate information consumption and exchange. When brought to bear on potential fieldwork, the eye-tracking model offers an incisive point of departure for ethnographers to investigate, observe, and present questions about peoples' perceptual expertise.

Far from opening a glimpse “inside” peoples' heads, eye trackers add one perspective among others. When accommodated to the mobile conditions of immersive research, the technology offers a modest, though useful, contribution to ethnographers' toolkit.

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