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Peer-to-Peer Healthcare

Technology is making peer-to-peer healthcare a lot easier. That’s the main message from Susannah Fox, the associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.

The Pew Research Center uses survey data to look at what is really happening online. This helps people make good decisions on valid data.

Ms. Fox was the closing keynote speaker at the Medicine 2.0 conference at Stanford University. With a scholarship from Stanford and further support from HealthCentral, I was able to participate in this outstanding three-day conference that concluded yesterday.

“What I am thinking about the most is peer-to-peer healthcare, Ms. Fox says. “So many people are learned from each other and not just from institutions. Peer-to-peer healthcare is the ancient instinct we have to seek and share information about health.”

Peer-to-peer healthcare assumes that any of us have knowledge that we can share. And the Internet makes that sharing possible.

More and more of us are turning to our family, friends, and social media for support with our health problems. People like you and me. That’s why we’re here at HealthCentral.

People come here online both for the health information in posts like this but also for the support we get in being part of an online community. We share. That’s why I particularly value all the many comments to my posts that you folks have left over the years.

Of course, we still rely a lot on medical professionals. Ms. Fox says that the data that the Pew Research Center collects show that 71 percent of American adults say health professionals have given them information, care, or support. At the same time, 55 percent of us say they have turned to friends or family. And 21 percent of us say that they turned to others who have the same health problems.

But the data that the Pew Research Center has collected shows two key trends.

The first is what she calls “the mobile difference.” People who have a smart phone are more willing to share and not just consume data.

The other trend is “the diagnosis difference.” When they hold demographic data — like age — constant, Internet users who have a chronic disease are more likely to create and consume user-created data related to their health. “It’s this idea of learning from each other and not just institutions.”

Of these Internet users who have chronic conditions like diabetes 23 percent say that they have gone online to find peers who have similar problems. By comparison, just 15 percent of people who use the Internet but don’t have chronic conditions have looked for help online.

The data that Ms. Fox and the Pew Research Center has powerfully refutes the thesis that the “weak ties” we form when we use social media are good for little more than gathering information. Yes, gathering information is important and nothing in human history has ever been better for it than the Internet. But the Internet facilitates sharing every bit as much.

Malcolm Gladwell disparages the value of social media’s “weak ties.”  This was the key line in his famous New Yorker article, “Small Change: why the revolution will not be tweeted:”

“This model of activism…is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.”

While Mr. Gladwell is one of my favorite authors, he doesn’t know what he is talking about when he takes on social media.

Just a year after The New Yorker published his article, we all know about the resounding success of people using social media to overthrow dictators in Tunesia, Egypt, and Libya. That disproves his point on the world scene.

But he is even more wrong when it comes to healthcare here. Susannah Fox has shown us how social media is not only about access to information. It is just as much about access to our peers.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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