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Vol. LXIII, No. 19
September 16, 2011

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Peer-to-Peer Health Care
Fox Shows How Internet Is Changing Health Care

On the front page...

Dr. Susannah Fox

Dr. Susannah Fox

People are using the Internet to share information with each other at lightning speed. Combined with mobile technology, it is transforming the way the world works. This influence extends to health care and the way people are connecting to one another to improve their health.

“Just like peer-to-peer file sharing transformed the music business by allowing people to share songs, peer-to-peer health care has the potential to transform the pursuit of health by allowing people to share advice and to share what they know about themselves,” said Dr. Susannah Fox, who spoke Aug. 2 at the Office of Disease Prevention’s “Mind the Gap” seminar series. Associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, she spoke on “Peer-to-Peer Health Care” and shared findings from Pew’s recent studies on the social impact of the Internet.


“Peer-to-peer health care is the confluence of two powerful forces,” said Fox. “Number one is the ancient instinct to seek and share advice about health. Number two is our newfound ability to do to so at Internet speed and at Internet scale.”

The Pew Research Center has been tracking Internet usage for more than 10 years. In 1995, only 1 in 10 adults had access to the Internet. Today, 75 percent of adults, including 95 percent of teens, are online.

The rise of mobile technology adds a new level of interaction. Fox describes the “mobile difference,” meaning that mobile users are much more likely to interact and be an active part of the online community instead of simply searching for information.

“If you hand someone a smart phone, they’re more likely to contribute, forward, upload a video or update their status,” said Fox. “Instead of letting information just wash over us, mobile social technologies are inviting us to participate and jump in ourselves.”

Six in 10 people go online wirelessly with a laptop, mobile device or tablet, including 84 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the Pew Research Center’s findings. Forty-seven percent of people report that they get some local news on their cell phones or tablets. Forty-eight percent are looking online wirelessly for information on doctors or other health information.

Bob Braswell, Arliss Howard, Debra Winger and Sara Waisanen perform at NIDA’s Addiction Performance Project, held Aug 5 on campus.

Fox said, “If you enable an environment in which people can share, they will. And the benefits of that sharing will entice other people. That’s peer-to-peer health care.”

Photos: Ernie Branson

How are people connecting online to get health information? The Pew Research Center found that one in five Americans have gone online to find people with similar health concerns. This figure is higher—one in four—for people with a chronic illness. In addition, many people have “second degree” Internet access through a caregiver searching online on their behalf. This is an important connection to the online world for older individuals and those who are other-wise offline.

In addition, people experiencing a significant change in health not necessarily related to illness, such as pregnancy, weight loss or quitting smoking, are using the Internet as well. One in four Internet users track weight, diet, exercise routine or other health indicators with online tools.

“Six in 10 American adults seek health information online but doctors, nurses and other health professionals continue to be the first choice for people with health concerns,” said Fox. Nine of 10 Americans say health care professionals are more useful than fellow patients, friends and their families in getting a diagnosis.

“The bottom line is that the Internet does not replace health professionals,” said Fox. “Peer-to-peer health care is a way to do what they’ve always done: to lend an ear, to lend a hand, to lend advice,” but at a new speed and scale.

According to Fox, several groups of people are acting as “beacons of change,” encouraging those who are not yet connected to join the online community. Patient leaders are advocating for the sharing of good health information for the benefit of themselves and, often, their loved ones.

Clinician leaders are sparking interest among health care professionals—the people who already have direct access to health information—and encouraging them to share with other clinicians and their patients. For example, the “Improve Care Now” network is helping health care providers work together with children with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis to share new tools and ideas. Since the creation of the network, doctors have seen increased remission rates for patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Technology leaders are the third “beacon” and they can make it easy, and even fun, to track health data. For example, the online service collects self-reported patient data and encourages users to make discoveries about how their own health fits into a broader picture of health and disease.

Fox concluded, “If you enable an environment in which people can share, they will. And the benefits of that sharing will entice other people. That’s peer-to-peer health care.” NIHRecord Icon

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