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.

WebMD Introduction

Dear prospective client,

My name is Jessica Luton and I’m a health and medical journalism graduate student at UGA. As a part of a new media course this semester, our class has been tasked with helping companies just like you make efficient use of the mounds of data that are accessible via Facebook using the Open Graph, a platform in Facebook that allows for frictionless sharing and storage of thousands of pieces of valuable data from users. With this information, our goal is to show your readers that “you really get them.” With this offering, WebMD will be able to offer more personalized health information to their clients, a goal that will most likely result in a strong online social media following and interaction from your readers, as well as increased interaction on the WebMD website.

The idea behind this project is to make use of the information that your readers are already sharing or liking on Facebook.  If a person shared a particular health-related news story, whether it be from WebMD or not, that information could be used to suggest catered and customized content into that person’s news feed.  If a person says they’re tired and drinking lots of coffee via a status update, WebMD could push content to that person about ways to increase their energy or the benefits of coffee.  This is just one example of what big data can do for you and your readers. In essence, WebMD becomes a personalized health coach service, offering up the advice that people need and want based on their interests.

I am fully prepared to spend anywhere from 6 to 12 hours on this project per week. All I need from you is a commitment to an introductory phone conversation, an agreement to no more than 5 emails over the course of the next few months and, further and most importantly, a firm commitment to attend our “Show Off” day on May 5, 2012 where you’ll be able to see my final proposal for the project, polished up and ready to be put into action. Thanks in advance for your willingness to participate in this project.  I sincerely look forward to working with you.

Best regards,
Jessica L. Luton

Big Data, Health and WedMD

Well, I’m home from my trip to California to attend a conference on atrophic macular degeneration as a science writer.  The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, I must say, but at the end of it all I found myself stepping back from all of the medical and scientific jargon and thinking about the big picture.  Atrophic macular degeneration is the biggest cause of blindness in people over 50.  That being said, studying the eye causes a significant challenge for researchers, as it’s next to impossible to take a biopsy from the eye as is possible when studying other tissues.

I sat in a room for three days with the genetics groups as they plotted their course for finding further evidence of the genetic risk of atrophic macular degeneration.  Approximately 50 percent of the genetic risk factors are known, thanks to recent findings in research, but geneticists are struggling to pin down the rest of this risk  because the tissue is difficult to get a hold of immediately following a patient’s death and the remaining genetic risk factors are likely to be rare and varying, requiring a larger collection of population data to find any sort of genetic pattern.  The solution?  My group suggested an eye tissue bank as a means for collaboration with other research studies to collect an aggregate of genetic knowledge about AMD that will hopefully show patterns in genetics to help locate the rest of the genetic risk.

So…what’s the big deal?  They’re using all of this data to find a cure for this disease.  And it got me thinking about the future of big data and healthcare.  I’ve been assigned WebMD as my company and while I’m up to the challenge, it certainly seems like a murky subject.  Thanks to regulations protecting patient data, connecting this data socially via Facebook seems to have created a particularly tricky position for companies like WebMD. There’s no Facebook Connect option with the WebMD website. And they reached 100,000 Facebook fans today, despite being one of the top health websites.

They recently released a very popular app for the iPhone called WebMD baby. And they do have personalized health record keeping and a weight loss and food tracker with a WebMD account.

The Washington Post had this to say about the future of healthcare and big data. It seems that no one has been able to crack the code in terms of getting people to participate who are both healthy and combating an illness, an issue that can be problematic if you’re trying to analyze data for replicable use in science.

The frictionless approach of Facebook, at least for WebMD, could prove to be useful, at least in terms of health and wellness at a preventative level.  I’ve been thinking about the possibilities.  How can people’s actions and reading preferences be used in a way that is both useful and helpful to them, without necessarily advertising embarrassing or otherwise private health conditions to all of your friends?  With the new action settings, does Facebook have the potential to monitor your healthy and unhealthy actions based on status updates.

Say you post a status update about your lack of sleep, over-consumption of coffee and general stress from grad school. (That’s every other Facebook status for me.)  If I were WebMD, I could refer you to articles that provide basic information on how to combat stress in a healthy way, the health effects of not getting enough sleep or the negative or positive effects of drinking lots of coffee.  WebMD has a treasure trove of health information at hand, and while much of that content is there ready for a user to find it, a lot of people go to WebMD to use the symptom checker when they have a cold or to seek out further information if they’ve recently been diagnosed with a disease. This would provide personalized content based on your reading habits.

But what if WebMD could keep you on track for staying healthy and give you recommendations based on your actions to help you live a more healthful life.  Would this work?  Would people use it?  I don’t know.  But it would A. give the user a benefit of better health information and B. give WebMD more hits on its website, which results in better leverage to attract advertisers.

WebMD isn’t selling the company anymore, so that’s somewhat positive news.

However, I’m not entirely sure that using Facebook is a solution for WebMD beyond preventative information.  Big Data, it seems, is the wave of the future for healthcare, as genomic data and medical histories are aggregated and used to provide personalized medical care based on genetic risk, etc. People sharing their medical histories and genetic data via social media, for me at least, is the ultimate line for the creep factor.

Incorporating something like this new NYT project could be useful for preventative medicine and WebMD perhaps. Imagine having some sort of facebook app that allows you to set health goals, allows the WebMD app to monitor your actions, likes, and readings and then gives you personalized recommendations on healthier actions, or different scientific-data related stories to provide a differing perspective on health based on some other health article you read (science is, afterall, written in pencil, not pen).

Looking forward to feedback from anyone here.  I’d give WebMD access to my habits in exchange for a preventative medicine  Personal Health Coach, so to speak.  Would you?  Let me know your thoughts and comments please.  Sorry for the long post.  It helps to type all of these thoughts out.