Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rx: online patient networks for health info

I'm a longtime admirer of John Schwartz's reporting, and in today's New York Times, he looks at the 75 percent of Internet users who seek health information online--and how the majority of those with chronic health problems use what they find there to make decisions about their treatment. Schwartz points out, however, that:
...paging Dr. Google can lead patients to miss a rich lode of online resources that may not yield to a simple search. Sometimes just adding a word makes all the difference. Searching for the name of a certain cancer will bring up the Wikipedia entry and several information sites from major hospitals, drug companies and other providers. Add the word “community” to that search, Ms. Fox said, and “it’s like falling into an alternate universe,” filled with sites that connect patients.
Schwartz goes on to explain that online patient communities have become a robust example of social networking media at its best, democratizing health care and sharing information widely among trusted networks. The article offers lots of links to oft-consulted sites, and follows one patient who used online communities, searches and even Twitter to advance her care--receiving from a Twitter follower a critical piece of advice on a possible drug side effect she was experiencing after surgery.

Lessons for communicators? Make sure your online health communities can be found in patients' searches, for starters--and even if your work doesn't involve health as a subject matter, start investigating how your audiences are using social networks to get informed about your issues. (Who'd have thought of Twitter from a hospital bed--but it's happening.) This article offers a great, detailed example that should be part of your audience research as you think about adapting old-line communications to new-media options.

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