RealTime IT News

Health Care: Social Networking Gone Serious?

Internet Week
NEW YORK -- Information on the Web is a mixed bag. Anyone with an opinion can put it out there for the world to see, which works just fine for movie reviews or product recommendations. But when it comes to health information, shouldn't an expert be involved?

For the panelists discussing the intersection of the medical and IT industries at Time Warner's headquarters during New York Internet Week, the answer is absolutely -- but that the experts aren't always going to be doctors.

The perspective that a fellow patient might offer about what to expect going into a medical procedure, for instance, might be of greater value than the often-cursory description a doctor might offer.

"We're in the early days here of what is essentially a data experiment," Scott Mowbray, editorial director of Health.com, said of the fast growing online body of health information -- much of which is created by people who aren't doctors.

"News in health is not only something that's been discovered," he said. "It's you discovering something that might already be out there. To you, it's news as soon as you have a disease. Suddenly, it's the most important news in the world."

Much of the recent discussion about the Internet and health information has focused on digitizing patients' medical records, following major moves by both Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) into that space. But the panelists said that there is another, less structured revolution taking place where people seeking information about a health issue are looking to connect with others who have experience dealing with the same condition.

It's a form of social networking, though very different from what is found on a mass-appeal site like Facebook or MySpace. But the principles of viral distribution and user-generated content (UGC) are the same.

"It's about personalization of the information," said Benjamin Heywood, president of Patients Like Me, a site housing online communities for people dealing with specific diseases. "What you really want to know is the information that's relevant to me -- based on my situation, my condition."

Just as product reviews of the latest plasma-screen TVs don't matter much until you're in the market for one, the average person isn't going to care about what the Web has to say about chronic renal failure until they've received that diagnosis.

Heywood's platform supports communities formed around highly specified medical conditions, also offering access to troves of professional data, such as the results of clinical trials. It is something like a healthcare counterpart to Ning, the platform that has created hundreds of thousands of niche social networks for enthusiasts of areas ranging from mixed martial arts to do-it-yourself robotics.

Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by training who now serves as CNN's chief medical correspondent, suggested that user-generated content, such as patients' reviews of doctors, can help inform the decisions a patient makes.

But, "there are some caveats there," he said. "It has to be credible still. People who are pissed off are going to be much more likely to submit a negative review than someone who is happy. So all of a sudden, you get a skewed viewpoint."

The panelists are all excited about the potential benefits that UGC can bring to the patient side of the medical world. But they cautioned that it's only one source of data, and no substitute for the vetted content one finds on the professionally produced sites.

Still, the glut of information available grows precipitously by the day, and telling the good from the bad can be problematic, panelists agreed.

The so-called "wisdom of the crowds" -- that favorite phrase of the Web 2.0 phenomenon -- can help to some extent, as the better sites would enjoy the benefits of viral distribution, which would in turn improve their page rankings in search results. But the Web's version of consensus only goes so far.

"There's no sure way other than being an enlightened consumer," Mowbray said. "It's difficult."