The Democratization of Health Knowledge by Steve Denning, Guest Contributor
Steve Denning wrote previously about The democratization of knowledge: anyone can know anything:
“This phenomenon is particularly notable in the spontaneous formation of global communities of interest in the field of medical problems. Patients who were once at the mercy of doctors who had unique access to esoteric medical knowledge now find themselves able to contact other doctors and patients and explore their particular subject, gather new data, discover new leads for treatment, and learn how to cope with side effects. The emerging communities are global in nature. A patient in the US may be able to learn from a doctor in China or a suffering patient in Argentina and vice versa. The sufferers of rare diseases, where perhaps only a few victims exist around the world, can now make contact with each other and share experiences…”
I had an email discussion with Steve yesterday, in which he provided the following update on the Democratization of Health Knowledge:
- the rising resentment of some “experts” to the re-emergence of amateur knowledge, and a certain degree of unwarranted elitism involved in such “expert” attitudes. This resentment seems most marked in fields where the expert’s claim to superior expertise is most shaky e.g. political journalists.
- the reluctance of some “experts” to share if they feel that the knowledge risks being misused or abused.
- the gratitude of other “experts” who often see the amateurs as helpful partners.
- the risk that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Alexander Pope: “Drink deep or taste not at all from the Pierian spring.” (That risk is however not limited to amateurs. The radical specialization of medicine means that someone can be an expert in a tiny field, but a real ignoramus in areas of their expertise and make egregious blunders.)
- the reduction of such risk in cases where people have taken on the task of lifelong learning. They become adept at getting up to speed in a completely new field and remain curious, open-minded, imaginative, and rigorous in their exploration of a new field of knowledge. This is important both for amateurs and experts. Atul Gawande’s books document some of these issues in the medical field.
My more recent work has tended to move towards the area of things that are already very well known but are not acted on: what can be done about this?
The irony is that the larger knowledge problem since time immemorial has always been one of demand for knowledge, rather than one of supply of knowledge. Unless this is addressed, increased supply of knowledge doesn’t change things all that much. We don’t need a lot of esoteric web research to know that diet, exercise, smoking, or substance abuse are critical determinants of health and well-being. Yet how many people fail to act on this knowledge?
In organizations, people often know all too well what needs to be done, but often they can’t get others to listen and act. (In the medical field, you don’t need to be a genius to see that the overall cost-effectiveness of the US health system is far from optimal. So why hasn’t change happened?) My work is now aimed mainly at helping people overcome resistance to obviously needed change. I’ve spoken on occasion at medical conferences and discussed the issue with dentists.