How WebMD Can Change The Future of Health

In 2011, CNN and many other media outlets reported on a new study about where patients get their health information.  According to this study, one in five people uses Facebook or Twitter to get health information.  That being said, the market is growing larger as we speak, as start-ups and established technology companies alike compete in the Health 2.0 race.  Just take a look at this 200-slide presentation on what the future of healthcare is beginning to look like–iPhone vital sign monitors, localized health data presented in interactive visual format, mobile apps with 3D interactive visuals to explain conditions. The list goes on and on.  And if you’re like me, you want to know what’s worth your time and what isn’t.

WebMD has a unique market.  People visit WebMD to find out more about a condition, to read the latest health news and to find easy to digest information to help them make informed health decisions.  They are mostly women, ages 30 and up, with an aim to keep themselves and their families in good health.  Call it the natural caregiver instinct.  But say you’ve read article after article about preventing cancer or you’ve self-diagnosed yourself using the WebMD diagnostic tool. Wouldn’t you like to know whether it is more likely that you have something as common as food poisoning versus something more severe with similar symptoms?  Wouldn’t you like to know just how likely you are to get cancer in 10 years?  Thanks to Facebook’s open graph, not only can you find out your own personalized risk, you can share it with your friends, and thereby proverbially pass the crystal ball. Your age and gender and location are already there to provide personalization.  The rest of the data is out there as open data, waiting to be personalized.  Once you’ve personalized your risk, you can share what assessed risk with friends. And WebMD can then push you suggested content to read based on your risk assessment.

Say I created a Social Reader application for Facebook. The social reader lists the most popular health videos, emerging health applications and health technologies, interactive data sets, WebMD articles and topics on Twitter from your friends. You see that your friend Jane has read an article about cancer treatments.  This gets you to thinking.  What is my risk for getting cancer in 10 years?  Lucky for you, there’s information out there to help you gain some perspective–a risk chart.  For a 35-year-old woman who smokes or smoked more than a 100 cigarettes in a lifetime, the risk of dying in 10 years from cancer is 1 out of 1000. Want to know what percentage of people suffer from all of those side effects listed in the commercial for a prescription drug you’re taking? There’s a data out there for that. And thanks to Facebook’s open graph interface, you can share what you’ve learned and encourage other people to seek out their personalized risk data on what’s important to them.

So why is this important?  Well, knowing that, for instance, if I take Lunesta I have 16 in 100, or 16 percent, chance of getting an infection such as a cold, will help me arrive at the best health decision I can make.  The point is: you can’t make good health decisions without all the facts, without some bit of perspective on how big of a risk you’re dealing with.  WebMD is a trusted source of information. However, when people are searching for answers to their health troubles, they often sit down to find a diagnosis for a stomach ache and by the end of their interactive experience, they’ve talked themselves into thinking they might have stomach cancer.  Perspective is everything.

Open data on a wide range of health statistics is available from numerous sources.  As a first year Health and Medical Journalism student this year, I read a book that I found to be immensely helpful.  Called “Know Your Chances,” the book teaches readers how to read a news story, understand how big of a risk the topic of a new story may be for people like you and essentially gives readers an opportunity to judge whether or not an article on a new study was really “all that and a bag of chips.”  Anyhow, that’s my idea for WebMD–a social reader with visual, interactive statistical risk assessment tools.  Users gain the knowledge of perspective as a means to make evidence-based health decisions. WebMD gains the possibility to educate people on the statistics of health. It’s a win-win.

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