Today I'm at the Health 2.0 Conference here in San Francisco, the first gathering of its kind: over 400 entrepreneurs, investors, analysts, media and other industry insiders have convened to discuss what happens when old world healthcare meets new world Web 2.0. The event is sponsored by Silicon Valley icon Cisco Systems, and representatives of Google, Yahoo! and other Web heavyweights all have speakers on the program.
You might wonder what this is all about, as in what do computer networking gear and search sites have to do with healthcare? It's simple, folks: all these companies want a piece of the pie. Now that almost 58 million or 75% of American households subscribe to broadband internet access, patients and caregivers alike are increasingly getting together on the web. DiabetesMine.com itself is a community -— or social network -— with the purpose of discussing our condition and issues relevant to our health and well-being.
Matthew Holt, creator of the influential Health Care Blog and organizer of the Health 2.0 Conference, sees social networks at the core of a major new trend in healthcare interaction:
"Social networks are redefining relationships within communities in unanticipated and previously unimaginable ways. Web 2.0 tools — like blogs, wikis, podcasts, user-generated video and specialized search — are generating a fundamental shift away from the traditional flow of information as defined by payers, physicians, hospital systems, and suppliers. It is absolutely clear that we are at the start of a significant shift in demand from both consumers and providers for better information and easier ways to share experiences."
Or as the Wall Street Journal puts in a recent article:
"The social-networking revolution is coming to healthcare, at the same time that new Internet technologies and software programs are making it easier than ever for consumers to find timely, personalized health information online. Patients who once connected mainly through email discussion groups and chat rooms are building more sophisticated virtual communities that enable them to share information about treatment and coping and build a personal network of friends. At the same time, traditional Web sites that once offered cumbersome pages of static data are developing blogs, podcasts, and customized search engines to deliver the most relevant and timely information on health topics."
In another recent article, The
Economist points to the happy phenomenon that I —- and hopefully many readers of
DiabetesMine.com -— have personally experienced: thousands of online patients
sometimes know more than a small group of expert doctors.
"Patients who live with chronic diseases such as epilepsy often know more about them than their doctors, contends Daniel Hoch, a professor at Harvard Medical School. ... Many doctors, he says, 'don't get the wisdom of crowds.' But he thinks the combined knowledge of a crowd of his patients would be far greater than his own."
The numbers of people engaging in health issues on the web are staggering. Over 20% of American internet users have created some sort of health-related content, according to Jupiter, a leading market-research firm. This kind of traffic appeals to tech-savvy entrepreneurs, who realize the financial potential of healthcare communities on the web. Examples of some hot innovators are represented on the panel I'm leading today, entitled "Social Media for Patients":
* Doug Hirsch, CEO, DailyStrength.org - so far the web's most comprehensive health network, with 500+ interactive communities around specific conditions
* Ben Heywood, CEO, Patients Like Me - a fast-growing new community/consumer tool with deep tracking capabilities for conditions like ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease
* Steve Krein, CEO, OrganizedWisdom - a sort of ueber-search engine for health issues that uses human reviewers to do away with junk links and spam
* Karen Herzog, Co-Founder, Sophia's Garden - a healing community for parents of chronically ill children, soon to be taking the concept to a new level with a virtual world, a'la Second Life, for its concerned parents
* John de Souza, CEO, MedHelp International - perhaps the oldest and most established health community site (since 1994!), offering direct doctor-patient Q&A along with blogs and community tools
* Brian Loew, CEO, Inspire.com - formerly ClincaHealth, another community site for patients and caregivers, but with key partnerships with numerous established health orgs, like the Women's Heart Association, the Lung Cancer Alliance, and Preemie Magazine
From an online patient's (or "ePatient's") perspective, this dot-health-boom is nothing but good news. We get more information, meet new soul mates and have the potential to organize on the web to make our collective voice heard.
Of course the plethora of new offerings can be kind of overwhelming on the face of it, but in the ultra-Democratic world of the web, the good stuff will float to the top and the rest will wither away. It's our prerogative then, as ePatients, to decide which online health stuff will survive, and thrive.