February 28, 2019

Medical anthropologist Dr. Marlaine Figueroa Gray named assistant investigator


An expert in qualitative methods, she studies what matters most in patients' experience of health and illness.

Marlaine Figueroa Gray, PhD, was recently promoted to assistant investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI). A medical anthropologist who has worked as a research associate at the Institute for five years, Dr. Gray brings extensive experience in qualitative research methods, including eliciting illness narratives using interviews, photos, observation, focus groups, fieldwork, and community mapping. 

Dr. Gray’s main research interest is exploring what matters most in people’s experience of health, especially during times of medical uncertainty such as end of life. Examples include her work on The Clare Project, which examined how teens and young adults with end-stage cancer make medical decisions. In that study, Dr. Gray pioneered using social media to recruit and engage study participants, and to collect data.

“In qualitative research, it’s important to meet your study participants where they are,” says Dr. Gray. “We saw that lots of adolescents and young adults with cancer were using social media to communicate about their experience, so we knew that we should be there listening.” These methods are being used in subsequent studies.

Dr. Gray is now leading a study funded by the National Science Foundation on how cancer patients and providers make decisions about participation in Phase I immunotherapy trials. She is also collaborating on a study of people with dementia who have no family caregivers. Its aim is to determine how such lack of caregivers impacts health care utilization and health outcomes.

In addition, she has provided support for the design and implementation of many projects within the Kaiser Permanente Washington delivery system, including recent initiatives to expand the medical assistant role to advance primary care, and the implementation of a home-based palliative care program for patients with dementia.

She has also contributed to studies of how people are making medical decisions in various situations such as whether to use anti-nausea medication during pregnancy; whether to have bariatric surgery for severe obesity; and how to communicate with family members about the results of genetic testing.

Dr. Gray has a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Washington and master’s degrees in anthropology from the University of Washington and in education policy from the University of Maryland, College Park.