Will patients embrace Health 2.0?

Someone going by the name “Darthmed” recently posted a comment that stopped me in my tracks:

… The remaining 95% of “patients” out there are not motivated to become informed, or invest the time/energy/money in using any of these tools. These are the folks that know that fast food isn’t healthy, but are just too tired to choose differently. Some (emphasis on some) will do a standard Google search when they receive a new diagnosis at best. Yet these are the folks – often folks with multiple chronic (often preventable) health problems, many overweight, on multiple medications, sometimes social problems – that have the real issue that needs fixing.

So we can all sit and perfect the tools for a few folks that never needed them anyway, or we can recognize that the kinds of solutions required for healthcare in the US today have nothing to do with fancy IT, or prioritization on search engines, and everything to do with low-tech, unsexy approaches toward grass-roots public health. Sorry to be the voice of reality guys.


It is my job to measure the impact of the internet on society and contribute data to the public conversation. I analyze survey data, write reports, answer reporter’s questions, and speak at conferences where people either know too much about what I study or know so little that I come off as some kind of oracle from the Interwebs.

In this case, I was definitely not writing about health IT, nor the latest Health 2.0 trendlet, but the basic, nearly-universal-among-internet-users habit of Googling for health information. Search is becoming a wallpaper technology, something we don’t even see anymore, yet it’s clearly an activity worth discussion.

However, Darthmed is telling the hard truth about health issues facing the United States. It’s his voice I heard in my head as I listened to speakers at a recent National Institutes of Health workshop, “Preventing Stroke and Heart Disease: Connecting Traditional and Emerging Approaches to Change Behavior.”

Speaker after speaker talked about how nothing really works in trying to get people to change their diets for the better, to get more exercise, to save their own lives and the lives of their children. It was a parade of one step forward, two steps back interventions: media campaigns, individual counseling, community outreach. None worked long-term.

As I sank lower and lower in my seat, the lizard brain voice started in: “What good is any of your data in the face of this crisis? People can’t sustain behavior change after being told directly that they are killing themselves. And now you’re going to get up there and talk about Flickr, YouTube, and blogs?

Luckily, the NIH workshop happened to fall on the same day as the FDA’s hearings on the internet and social media. My Twitterfeed was alive with coverage of the hearing, including some passionate opinions about how the internet can transform health care.

Another piece of luck is that for every Darth, there is an Obi-Wan Kenobi. For me, that’s Esther Dyson. She gives me the confidence to say nope, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can help people understand the present in order “to get a sense for how the future will pan out.” I believe that, although very few people engage with their health on a daily or even weekly basis, it is important to understand what they do when their attention is focused on a health question.

I also believe that we don’t yet know enough about how to capture people’s attention, how to inspire them to say, “You know what? I’m going to skip that fast-food meal and make something healthy for dinner.” Maybe it could be something on Flickr, YouTube, or a blog. Maybe it’s something they find in a search result. Maybe it’s being connected, being part of a network of people who are influencing each other without being conscious of it.

So, welcome Darthmed — please keep posting your killer observations. But don’t mind me if I keep tracking how the landscape is shifting under our feet.

Susannah Fox is Associate Director, Digital Strategy at Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, and blogs at e-patients.net.

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