Knowledge matters: producing and using knowledge to navigate healthcare systems

Karen Willis, Fran Collyer, Sophie Lewis, Jonathan Gabe, Ian Flaherty, Michael Calnan

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In many contemporary healthcare systems, individuals are expected to be rational actors – weighing up available knowledge and making choices about their healthcare needs. In the policy context this has been most explicitly applied to the financing of healthcare where there is encouragement for the purchase of private health insurance. However, perceptions of public and private healthcare provision, knowledge about healthcare needs, and the types of services people choose, are far from straightforward. Drawing on Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital, and a study of individual experiences of choice in Australian healthcare, we explore the knowledges used by people as they navigate through the healthcare system. Such navigation takes place in a milieu where authoritative medical knowledge intersects with knowledge from other sources, including the Internet and lived experience. However, our study reveals that navigation of healthcare is assisted most of all by the capacity to draw on ‘system knowledge’. System knowledge takes two, sometimes overlapping, forms. First, acquired system knowledge is produced through drawing on experience, formal knowledge and the capacity to undertake research (primarily cultural capital). Second, assumed system knowledge enables navigation of the healthcare system through accessing and utilising networks of privilege (primarily economic and social capital).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-216
Number of pages15
JournalHealth Sociology Review
Issue number2
Early online date20 Apr 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Apr 2016


  • choice
  • healthcare
  • knowledge
  • health systems
  • Bourdieu

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