This is a good example of the kind of “Health 2.0″ stuff that baffles me. The speaker in this video is Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. She is speaking at the Health 2.0 Conference. You can watch the embedded video or read the text of her remarks (from here) beneath it.
After the market crash, there were quite a few people on the internet sidelines who were eager to say “I told you so” and warn people against the dangers of the internet. My favorite example is the 2001 press release from the American Medical Association suggesting that Americans make a New Year’s resolution to “trust your physician, not a chat room” since the information found online puts “lives at risk.”
So…is Fox actually disagreeing with those who think it wiser to seek advice from physicians than to take seriously medical advice received from anonymous strangers in internet chat rooms? As I see it, acting on medical advice from an unidentified, unqualified strangers on the internet can “put lives at risk.”
Of course most people ignored that advice and flocked online for health information, just as they ignored the advice of the recording industry and flocked to music downloading sites.
This analogy to the recording industry is a very poor one.
If a consumer illegally downloads an mp3 of a commercially-available pop tune instead of buying it on iTunes, he is essentially getting the same product (the same audio, compressed for fast downloads) in a superior version (no DRM) for a lower cost (free instead of about a buck). If a consumer goes to an unidentified stranger in a chat room, he’s probably not getting a qualified physician (at the very least, he has no assurance that the person he’s taking advice from has the appropriate education and skills to dispense advice), so he’s consuming a significantly inferior product.
When the RIAA advises people not to download songs illegally, they do so because they believe illegal downloads erode the profits of the recording companies. It cannot, however, be argued that pirated music could do harm to consumers. When the AMA advises that doctors are a more trustworthy source than strangers in chat rooms, they very well might be trying to protect the income of primary care physicians- but they’re also right that medical advice from unqualified, unidentified providers can cause harm.
Fox goes on in the extended text version of her remarks:
But let’s give the AMA some credit. Inaccurate and outdated medical information does exist online.
To say that “[i]naccurate and outdated medical information does exist online” is an awful understatement that seems to erroneously imply that online healthcare misinformation is rare.
Medical librarians say people should check the source and date of the health information they find online. But few sites display those quality markers and few e-patients look for them.
First, medical librarians judge the quality of an online resource by a whole lot more than just the source and date.
Second, really reliable sites absolutely do display these markers. If few patients look for quality indicators, the reasonable solution is to help healthcare consumers be more discerning and to help guide them quickly to quality information. One way physicians and other healthcare providers can help their patients do this by directing them to MedlinePlus. Also, if consumers don’t have the information literacy to navigate the health information published online by authoritative institutions like the National Library of Medicine, how the heck are they going to sort through the inevitably massive amount of information put up by other consumers?
I do not believe that online resources collaboratively created by patients will solve the problems and dangers of healthcare misinformation online.
Let us say that a healthcare consumer has heard that ginkgo biloba will help improve his concentration. He visits MamaHerb (a consumer-created wiki for “natural remedies”) and decides there’s no reason why he shouldn’t start taking ginkgo.
MedlinePlus, on the other hand, goes into significant detail about potential risks and reasons why our consumer might want to reconsider or discuss with his physician before taking ginkgo.
Some will probably say that I’m defining “Health 2.0″ too narrowly. After all, the term only makes sense if it refers to the application of “Web 2.0″ trends to the needs of healthcare consumers. The Health 2.0 Conference apparently featured Phreesia, an service which I cannot work out a way to describe as “Web 2.0.”.