The Birth of Micro-Communities If you’ve ever searched for health and wellness information online, you know that finding the right resources for your unique issue can be a long and frustrating process. Sites like WebMD do a great job of meeting textbook health needs, but they simply aren’t equipped to handle the specific nuances of many health inquiries or the unique personalities and interests of health searchers.
Recently, consumers have begun to take control of their search for health and wellness information by forming thousands of ad-hoc Micro-Communities: communities based on unique, yet shared, aspects of health. Micro-Communities come in many forms (blogs, forums, social networks, support groups). By focusing on specific, personalized alliances among users, Micro-Communities change the very nature, availability, and distribution of health information as we know it.
You Are Unique, But on the Web, You Are Not Alone. If there’s one thing the web has taught us, it’s that while you may be unique, you are definitely not alone -- especially when it comes to health. If you search hard enough online, you can find health and wellness Micro-Communities for everything under the sun: Men and Post-Partum Depression, Lesbians with Breast Cancer, Soccer Moms and MRSA. There’s little question that we derive tremendous value from connecting to other people who are exactly like us, and the web celebrates precisely these types of connections.
Micro-Communities are engaging because they honor the fact that there’s a lot more to health and wellness than science and technology. They’re relevant because, in the real world, issues like co-conditions, health insurance, employment, income, age, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, to name but a few variables, play important roles in our health choices. Micro-Communities recognize the value and impact these factors have on our health. As Micro-Communities grow from tens to hundreds and now thousands of individuals, they’re fast becoming highly engaging and relevant places to find answers and support for any health or wellness challenge.
The Real Potential of Micro-Communities Have you ever wondered why content on most health websites looks so similar? The reason is it often comes from the same sources. For years, a small number of medical content providers (e.g., ADAM, Thomson Multum, FirstData) have licensed the same content to many sites. Few people challenged the authority of these content providers and it was cheaper for websites to license data than to build their own unique information resource. Enter Wikipedia. In less than 7 years, Wikipedia has exceeded over 2 million entries and has proven that user-generated content can be high quality and trustworthy.
In contrast to the often-static information from medical content providers, Micro-Communities have immense potential to create Wikipedia-like health and wellness knowledge that’s not only relevant and credible, but also highly personalized. For this to happen, all health stakeholders (not just consumers) will have to embrace the future of online Patient Education: a highly informative, constantly evolving online experience that engages patients and caregivers by recommending resources that are both specific and dynamic.
Patients and caregivers aren’t waiting for the medical community to get comfortable with the idea of online Patient Education. Instead, they’re using Web 2.0 tools to forge Micro-Communities, and they’re starting to take Patient Education into their own hands by finding, sharing and rating the best health and wellness information on the web.
Facing Challenges. The main challenge faced and posed by Micro-Communities is precisely what makes them compelling in the first place: they’re micro, a subset of a larger group of individuals (Pregnant Women over 40 → All Pregnant Women). But to become truly credible and dynamic information sources -- immune to dominance by only a handful of vocal members -— Micro-Communities have to reach a size and scale that establish their stature as trustworthy and helpful resources. To do so, they need educated consumers and engaged professionals (those with the most knowledge and sensitivity to patient and caregiver needs) to contribute openly, honestly and regularly.
If there’s one thing the web has taught us, it’s that old models of thinking, of searching, and of communicating need to evolve or they risk becoming obsolete. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of fear attached to online medical information. Many online health publishers fear losing control over health information. Many doctors and other health professionals fear liability. Insurers fear transparency. Advertisers fear negative adjacency. And a diminishing segment of consumers fear loss of privacy. These stakeholders remain attached to old models of thinking (and old sources of revenue). By staying fearful, they jeopardize their ability to engage consumers in a meaningful way, and to mobilize the web to deliver nuanced, personalized and dynamic Patient Education.
Micro-Communities will truly flourish and reach their highest potential when more health stakeholders recognize that the fear of online health information is really a fear of change. Our medical system will be stretched to the limit in the coming decades, as there is less elbow-room in the waiting room. By recommending great online information and providing ongoing support, Micro-communities can’t fix healthcare in America, but they can make a difference. What more can we ask of them?
Carl Sandler is (predictably) the CEO of a new health site called PeoplesMD, where Micro-Communities create insiders’ guides to thousands of health and wellness topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.