A hospital seems an unlikely place to find an anthropologist, but for Lesley Gotlib Conn, it makes perfect sense. “Our approach is the same, whether it’s in a hospital or a foreign country. Anthropologists go to a place that is unfamiliar – with a new language and a different world view – and we observe, trying to understand the complexity of that place,” says Lesley.
Lesley has been doing just that for the last three years in the Trauma, Emergency and Critical Care Program at Sunnybrook. She was brought to the hospital by Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Avery Nathens, who recognized the need for different perspectives to improve outcomes for trauma patients.
“Anthropologists bring a different perspective to health services research,” says Lesley. She recently studied communication in the Critical Care Unit, interviewing and observing team members for months during their daily routines.
“We wanted to know what it was about working in critical care and surgery that makes communication between staff difficult,” she says. The study findings helped to identify the differences in the way the team communicates, enabling recommendations to be made for appropriate improvements.
While studying for her PhD in anthropology at the University of Toronto, Lesley saw herself on a path to becoming a more traditional anthropologist.
“I got a grant to go and do fieldwork in French Polynesia,” she says. But she discovered the field of medical anthropology just as she was about to leave for the South Pacific. “I cancelled the trip, started doing field work for my dissertation at a hospital and I haven’t looked back,” she says, adding that she enjoys the unique challenge working in a hospital environment brings. “Establishing a good rapport with people is key to being a good anthropologist. Nothing about what I do is judging – it’s understanding.”
Beyond the trauma and critical care programs, Lesley has also worked on strengthening interprofessional collaboration throughout the hospital. In one project, she interviewed staff who had been anonymously identified by their team members as being good collaborators.
“Most of the time, these individuals were very surprised that they had been nominated by their peers,” she says. The findings are being developed into a tool kit and an educational resource for team collaboration. “It was a privilege to talk to and learn from such humble, high-achieving people.”