Posts tagged ‘advice’

Must Waiting Be Inherent To Medical Care?

“By the time you see the doctor, you’re either dead or you’re better,” my mother-in-law told me. She had to have multiple tests, all with long waits to get the appointments and the results, before her health insurer would allow her to make an appointment with a specialist.

“Waiting is the bane of the medical system,” a former student, an R.N., concurred. Advances in medicine and technology have improved medical outcomes, but have often resulted in more waiting at a time when every other aspect of life is speeding up. Waiting is a systemic problem exacerbated by advances in medicine and by health care reform.

Some of the ways we wait:

  1. Wait to see if the symptoms go away or get worse. We all struggle with these decisions: do we need to be seen about the fever, back pain, or rash? Sometimes we wait because of denial or hopelessness; sometimes because of the cost or availability of medical care. I make decisions about when I need to see the doctor by asking myself if, under the same circumstances, I would take one of my children to the doctor.
  2. Wait to get an appointment scheduled. I’ve made appointments for a sick child by channeling an old friend who could be relentless: “That is not acceptable. I need an appointment today.” Obnoxious but it sometimes worked. The rest of the time, though, the period between making and having an appointment can feel very long.
  3. Wait to get to the appointment. Doctors and hospitals are more abundant in Greater Boston, where I live, than in other places, although traffic and parking can be problematic. Melody Smith Jones described a man’s six hour commute to see a doctor.
  4. Wait to be seen by the doctor. It isn’t called the waiting room for nothing. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote in The Checklist Manifesto about people in the waiting room getting irate when he was running two hours behind on a hectic day. Being irate – or anxious or bored – is unlikely to increase the quality of physician-patient communication.
  5. Wait in the examining room. At least in a waiting room you are dressed. If it is cold and you are wearing a paper or cloth johnny, distractions don’t work as well and examining rooms have fewer than waiting rooms.
  6. See the doctor. Nowadays, as my mother-in-law recounted, you have to wait for the doctor to review your records before even looking at you. I find it surprising that physician rating systems give equal weight to wait times as they do to “communicates” and “listens”, when the latter are so much more important.
  7. Wait in the lab. The selection of magazines is skimpier. You may be reviewing what you were told not to eat or drink: will that cup of black coffee skew the results?
  8. Wait for lab results. If there are any non-routine reasons for testing, this can be interminable. I leave a lab asking when results will be ready and then I call. A former student told me about using Harvard Vanguard’s MyHealth Online. She said, “I love getting the lab results immediately online but I can see how those without clinical training could be overwhelmed or confused by the data and how to interpret them.”
  9. Wait for the doctor’s interpretation of lab results. Lab results can be hard to decipher without clinical training, as my student said above. Even when I know results are available and the doctor has seen them, it can take many phone calls to obtain the doctor’s message via the secretary. Asking the doctor follow-up questions takes even longer. These are waits with a cell phone never turned off so you don’t miss the call.
  10. Loop. You think you’re done but you may need to see a specialist, get a second opinion, or have more tests. As my mother-in-law pointed out, this process can be controlled more by insurance companies than by doctors’ availability. Another type of waiting also takes place now: waiting to get better. A friend bemoaned how she “couldn’t wait” for her black eye resulting from a fall to clear up because she was tired of people staring at her.

Waiting Reduction

We all have to wait. Waiting is an inherent part of being ill. But here are some ways to reduce wait time or lessen the impact:

  1. Schedule tests and doctor’s appointments together. My exercise teacher told me about her husband’s hospital visit that started with a CT scan and ended with a doctor’s appointment to discuss the results. With no problems detected and a year until they next visit, they both said what a relief it was to get it over with quickly. Scheduling appointments together reduced both waiting time and anxiety, although not all tests results can be interpreted this quickly. Personally I find it is much easier to deal with a diagnosis than fear of what a symptom could mean.
  2. Avoid unnecessary appointments through email or phone. A Dutch friend, whose sister and aunt are doctors, recounted instances when she was able to get quick answers by email or phone to questions, be reassured, and save a lot of time and effort. One instance: “Once I was on holiday in Greece and sent my sister a picture when my eye was infected. She told me to buy drops and that it would go away.” Since most people do not have convenient relatives with medical degrees to talk to, being able to easily reach a doctor or nurse by email could provide a way to get a quick answer. Dr. Danny Sands has long been a proponent of physician-patient email, but most practices do not support it. I can easily see the benefits because email forces you to describe a situation concisely and images can be attached as appropriate.
  3. Meet Dr. Skype. Melody Smith Jones posed the question, “Can telehealth be used to end this man’s 6 hour commute by providing him access to the specialists he requires? What barriers and challenges still lay before us to make this a reality?” Dr. Joseph Kvedar answers this, saying “We have to move beyond the antiquated notion that you must visit a physical space and talk real-time with your health care provider to fulfill the process of care.  Seamless communication between you the patient and the system (including your provider but also your health information) will allow us to cut through what is a falsely complex and inefficient system to achieve more efficiency, less waiting and less anxiety.”
  4. Ask the expert. Self-proclaimed experts and community-verified experts provide advice in many sites like Yahoo! Answers. Recently there has been a proliferation of sites supporting health Q&A. A new entry, HealthTap, promotes that it has “Answers from 5,000 U.S. licensed physicians. No waiting room.” I tried it and questioned why I needed to answer so many personal questions during the registration process. Once registered, I started to ask a question but was stumped by how much context to provide. In general one of the things I like about Ask the Expert is the ability to browse other people’s questions – sometimes you learn more from questions you never would have thought to ask – and answers.
  5. Use clinics for non-urgent care. I had a friend who believed that it was important to see the same doctor because he or she could notice changes that might not otherwise be detected. While I agree, the Minute Clinic (note the name) model can potentially reduce some of the use of doctors for non-urgent care.
  6. Enhance health literacy skills. With 80% of US internet users looking online for health information, better health literacy skills are needed to guide the strategies used to seek, select, and use online health information. This is rarely taught in schools or by doctors, and is increasingly necessary because of the lower barriers with social media: it is easier than ever to promote herbal supplements and bad advice.
  7. Make waiting fun – or at least less stressful. Deirdre Walsh, a health coach and a former student, said, “The pain and frustration of endless waiting seems needlessly cruel. But it’s often the emotional toll of fear and uncertainty that does the most damage from the negative effects of stress chemicals on energy, sleep and mood.  If waiting is inevitable, there are self-awareness exercises that restore calm, power, and the sense of control. ” Games and gamification have potential as well: a version of “Wait, wait… don’t tell me!” for the waiting room?
  8. Is there an app for that? Not that I know of, but social media is being used by public health departments to post flu clinic waits and by emergency rooms to post wait times. What about for doctor’s visits? Dr. Richard Besser said, “You shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes unless there’s an emergency.  Social media might be a great place for people to share waiting times.” Along those lines, I read about, but have not tried, WaitChecker, a web-based service to alert patients to appointment delays.
  9. Set expectations. The metaphor Trisha Torrey uses is “when you arrive at a busy restaurant on a Friday night, what’s your question to the host?  How long is the wait?  It’s only fair that providers manage our expectations about wait times, too.” It is easier to be patient with expectations set, not just for the length of a wait but the course of a disease.
  10. Use waiting time on task. A student once told me that she had a rash when pregnant and assumed it was unrelated to her pregnancy. She searched for information on her iPhone while in the waiting room, decided it might be related after all, and asked her doctor, who treated it. She saved another doctor’s appointment. What if all waiting rooms provided mobile devices? Or promoted prevention with education, exercises, and healthy snacks. Talk about captive audiences.

Quality of Health Care Is Paramount

It is important to maintain perspective: quality of health care is paramount. Everyone wants the best care possible and sometimes waiting is unavoidable. With no health advantages to waiting, put , as Dr. Ted Eytan said, “the patients’ cost of care, which includes the time they spend waiting, into the equation. Everything follows from that.” There is no reason to accept that it’s part of our health system, but, instead to work to reduce waiting, and to reduce the impact of waiting.

October 19, 2011 at 8:22 am 38 comments

The Art of Running a Twitter Chat: Lessons from Dr. Richard Besser and ABC News

I learned that Dr. Besser runs a weekly Twitter chat on Twitter, of course: @drrichardbesser: Reminder: Twitter chat today #abcDrBchat 1PM ET Are you prepared for a disaster? Let’s talk about it. @ABC

For the uninitiated, this translates to: Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical editor of ABC News and former acting director of the CDC, is running a Twitter chat about disaster preparation.

I participated in the chat because disaster preparedness was on my mind after being interviewed earlier in the day about how social media is being used in Japan and because I follow Dr. Besser and wanted to see how he conducted his chat. I participate in the weekly #hcsm chat when I can and lurk in others, so it’s fascinating to compare moderation techniques. The chat, by the way, was lively, informative, and well-attended. My personal highlight was when Dr. Besser retweeted me and then @ABC retweeted him!

I was in my office at Tufts School of Medicine and the door was open, so colleagues came by and enjoyed looking over my shoulder (they fell in the uninitiated category and were uniformly impressed that Dr. Besser wasn’t). After the chat ended, I contacted Dan Childs, aka DanChildsABC, who heads the Health section of ABCNews.com, to ask how Dr. Besser’s weekly chat started, how it is conducted, and what happens after the hour is over.

Lisa: Who had the idea to start the weekly chat with Dr. Besser? 
Dan: This was actually an idea that was hatched during a discussion between a few of us on the Health team and Niketa Patel, the Social Media Producer for ABCNews.com. We had wanted to do something special that would allow Dr. Besser to connect more directly to his audience through social media, and Niketa offered up this idea. This is the first such effort for a correspondent here at ABC News, so we’re the trailblazers in a way. Or the guinea pigs, depending on how you look at it. Trailblazing guinea pigs.
 
Lisa: Did he like the idea? 
Dan: Dr. Besser loved the idea. 
 
Lisa: This was my first chat with Dr. Besser but I see there is another next week. When did they start? 
Dan: Today was our fourth Twitter chat so far. We started about a month ago.
 
Lisa: How are topics selected?
Dan: Generally, the chat crew will share ideas either in a meeting or online. As with the chat today about disaster preparedness, we try to pick topics that are in the news and, therefore, within the public consciousness. Last week, Dr. Besser tweeted from Africa on issues of global health in the developing countries there. We try to pick something that is relevant, but also gives participants a feeling of going beyond the headlines to explore how these current issues are relevant to them.
 
Lisa: I was very impressed that Dr. Besser was supported by @LaraSalaABCNews, @BigCityRig, @CarrieHalperin, and @DanChildsABC. What actually happens during the chat?
Dan: Several members of the chat crew set up laptops in Dr. Besser’s office, while others of us participate from our offices and desks. Certain members of the chat crew will be responsible for certain aspects of the chat; one may be tasked with presenting questions during the chat, while another will be in charge of scouring ABCNews.com for articles that are relevant to the discussion at hand and posting those links. It is also usually helpful to have one or two people navigating various external sources on the web to ensure that all tweets we put out are based on the most current and reliable information available.
 
Lisa: What happens after the chat to review how it went? Who is there and what is the discussion? Are there noticeable changes the following week?
Dan: This is generally a discussion that takes place in the course of our Health team morning meetings, and then more informally throughout the day as we think of the things we learned from the previous chat session. What is great about this whole process is that the product has evolved pretty much constantly since its inception – every time we do this, we do at least one or two things a little bit differently. Sometimes these adjustments are small ones, probably barely noticeable to our audiences. But then there are larger changes that really seem to have an impact. In our most recent session, for example, we were able to coordinate with ABCNews.com to have the tweets appear in real-time in a text box on the Home Page and the Health page of the website. So when something like that happens, where the rest of the eyes in the network can see what you’re doing and how you’re interacting with the audience, that’s pretty exciting.

March 16, 2011 at 7:51 am 7 comments

Ask our Nutritionist: How Stonyfield and Other Websites Provide Nutrition Advice

Many food and health websites include the services of a nutritionist to answer consumer questions by email or on the site. Vicki Koenig, MS, RD, CDN is a Nutritionist who works for Stonyfield Farm and one of her responsibilities there is responding by email to “Ask our Nutritionist” questions. Vicki receives between 40 and 70 questions a month and answers them all individually, although for some she peruses her archive of her previous answers, which is categorized by topic, and the articles she wrote for the site. The most common are gluten-free, diet, and probiotic questions. People are also interested in where the milk comes from and how the cows are treated. There are many “off-the-wall” ones; the strangest of which was a request for a yogurt-covered dog biscuit recipe (which she found and sent). One of the most absurd was someone asking can your stomach explode from a food-eating contest (it can’t, Vicki assured me).

Despite their disclaimer (The information provided by our nutritionist is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or give medical advise [sic]. Always consult your family health practitioner before altering your health regimen) people ask Vicki questions that are out of the context of her role. There are many from people who are desperately looking for answers to serious health problems, and she refers them to sites like the American Dietetic Association or other profession organizations. For instance, someone recently wrote that she has lupus and wanted to know what to do, and Vicki provided links but not a personalized diet.

To ask Vicki a question requires a name and email address, which makes sense since she responds by email. There is also a picture of her with her daughters and a bio; both make her seem very human and welcoming. When I asked, Vicki said that she needed to update the picture since her children are older now and that a marketing person contributed to part of the bio.  She emphasized that she is very human. She stated that she’s a health professional, working mom, business partner with her husband and a consumer too.

Vicki also answers some of the questions that arrive through Facebook especially if clarification is needed. She contributed to the FAQs on the website and wrote all the articles in the Healthy Tips Library. She doesn’t respond to Twitter. Vicki has her own Facebook page, which she uses frequently, and a less used Twitter account. Her private practice has a website as well, which links to her Stonyfield articles (but does not include an Ask the Nutritionist feature).

One of the things I was curious about, especially after learning the volume of questions Vicki gets, was why Stonyfield doesn’t promote Vicki’s Q&A more and why it is done as private correspondence as opposed to being displayed and archived prominently on the site. Stonyfield’s response was:

We agree that our Ask our Nutritionist is a valuable and beneficial feature for our consumers. We can and should do a better job at featuring some of the frequently asked questions that consumers raise as they relate to health through good nutrition and organic foods. We tried to address this by providing related topics in our Healthy Tips Library, as well as focus on key product attributes that Stonyfield can deliver i.e. DHA, Omega 3s, etc.

I looked at a few other food company websites: Del Monte and Lean Cuisine are two that offer a list of Q&A with a nutritionist. Del Monte’s features a picture and bio of their nutritionist and an uncategorized list of questions with the promise that a new one is answered weekly from those submitted. Lean Cuisine has far more questions which are selected from some of “the most popular ones” asked and categorized. While the topics make sense, not all categories are populated. Some of the answers include product promotion. There is no bio with the picture of the nutritionist and registration is required to ask a question. Both are easy to find from the home pages.

The Dana Farber Cancer Center website includes a categorized Ask the Nutritionist Archive. The questions and answered are very detailed and specific to cancer patients. They also include a first name, last initial, and city and state, making them seem more authentic.Like the Stonyfield site, they are hard to find (without doing a search).

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has an Ask the Nutritionist blog, where the comment field is used to ask questions and the answers are included below the question. While not categorized by topic, they are scrollable and many are very detailed and specific. There is also a picture and name but not a bio of the nutritionist. The blog is hard to find from the Dept. of Public Health site.

Go Ask Alice, a website developed by Columbia University primarily for college and high school students, has a page of nutrition questions. While the people responding are not identified by name or picture, the site states that all questions are answered by a team including Columbia University health educators. Each question includes the date originally published and the date last updated/reviewed and ends with links to related Q&As.

Curious I searched a little more and found other examples. Some, like Meritus Endocrinology, have an extensive archive while Washington Hospital Center’s Ask the Dietitian has a short list of questions. All the ones I found archived questions, although without any identifying information or a date, and most made it easy to ask questions. Stonyfield is therefore unusual in not providing an archive of questions.

If I was redesigning the Stonyfield site, I would include Vicki on the home page and let people coming to the site know that she is available to answer questions because it is such a valuable service and one that benefits the company in the helpfulness of this service to those who manage to find it on the site. (Of course, if more people know of Vicki’s availability, then her services might have to be limited.) I would include Vicki’s most recent Q&A on the home page with a link to the archive as a draw. Finally I would include at least a partial archive of questions and answers and, like Go Ask Alice! would include a date, and, like Dana Farber, would include at least a first name, city, and state because it makes it seem more like it came from a real person. However none of the questions I looked at on the above sites were generic or seemed fabricated because of the level of detail. The archive could prove valuable since someone else might have a question that you didn’t think to ask but benefit from. While there is already an enormous amount of information available online, the credibility of a nutritionist and the easy to digest (not an intentional pun) format of a Q&A could only benefit Stonyfield and allow more consumers to learn from other people’s questions and Vicki’s answers.

January 17, 2011 at 4:17 am 3 comments

Safe Fish, Smart Baby: Fish Consumption Advice for Pregnant Women

I gave a talk at the MA Department of Public Health this week and started with a game called Hot or Not. I showed screen shots to get people’s instantaneous reactions, my point being that people leave a site if is not appealing. One of the sites that was considered very “hot” was Lu Xing’s beautifully-designed home page from her final project in Online Consumer Health at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Lu, a graduate student at Emerson College working toward a master’s degree in Health Communication, designed a site, “Safe Fish, Smart Baby: Fish Consumption Advice for Pregnant Women” that was motivated by “the fragmented information that pregnant women have received about the nutritional value and health risks associated with fish consumption resulted in confusion and misperceptions.”Lu’s aim for to “create a credible and professional website that provides clear fish consumption advice, fish coupons, and fish preparation skills for pregnant women, to help them make informed fish consumption decisions, so that they can have a smart and healthy baby.” Her paper describes the steps she took to design her site. Lu and I welcome your feedback on her well-written and insightful final paper.

January 9, 2011 at 1:58 am 2 comments

A Website for the Management of Narcolepsy

Students in Online Consumer Health at Tufts University School of Medicine design health websites for a topic of interest to them or redesign websites for real organizations. Ellen Langhans, a graduate student at Emerson College working toward a master’s degree in Health Communication, chose the management of narcolepsy for her topic. Her goal was “to create a site for people who live with narcolepsy – both patients and their loved ones alike – to help them manage the disorder,” to provide timely information, and to help site members learn from and connect with each other to thrive. Her final paper details the process she went through, which included the development of four personas and a competitive analysis of four websites: two for narcolepsy, Narcolepsy Network and The Stanford Center for Narcolepsy, and two for diabetes management that had similar goals, Diabetes.com and Take Action. Ellen and I welcome your feedback on her excellent and comprehensive paper.

December 28, 2010 at 11:19 pm 1 comment

Interview with Dana Jennings, the World’s Most Famous Patient Blogger

Dana Jennings writes what is arguably the world’s most famous patient blog about his treatment for prostate cancer. Just to be clear, I don’t have any statistics about how many readers he and other patient bloggers have. I believe his blog is the most widely read and best-know patient blog because of the number of comments he receives and its prominent location in the New York Times Health section, itself widely read. ComScore found that more than 123 million Americans visited newspaper sites in May and the New York Times led online newspapers with more than 32 million visitors and 719 million pages viewed during May 2010.

As an avid reader of his blog and an admirer of his eloquence, I spoke to Dana on June 18, 2010 about why he started the blog, how he writes it, and how it has helped him through his prostate cancer.

Lisa: How did the idea of writing a blog first come up?
Dana: I have been a working journalist since 1980. In October 2008, I was working on my 6th book and having trouble writing because I was obsessing over having cancer. At the same time I couldn’t find what I wanted online about prostate cancer even though there is a lot of information out there. So I thought I could write about this. I wanted to give the topic a distinctive voice and be honest, not just about prostate cancer, but about cancer and about being ill. I was concerned about my family’s reaction, but I spoke to my wife and sons and they were fine about it. A colleague put me in touch with New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope who responded positively to the idea. It happened quickly after that.

Lisa: What has been most interesting for you about the process?
Dana: The two most interesting things about it were the extent to which writing it gave me an opportunity to find out what I thought about different aspects of having cancer, and the reaction to my blog, which stunned me. I but didn’t expect so many men to respond that I was articulating things for them or women to respond that I was saying what they wanted their husbands to say.

Lisa: How many readers do you have?
Dana: I don’t really get a count of readers for each post but some, like My Brief Life as a Women, have had hundreds of thousands of views. And a few posts have over 600 comments. I knew my blog had become well-known when Whoopi Goldberg made fun of me on The View.

Lisa: Do you read all the comments?
Dana: I read most. New York Times Op-Ed columnist Tom Friedman gets hundreds of comments and I suspect he doesn’t read all his comments, but it’s a different type of writing. I am a big fan of the 2-3 sentence comment, but even the long ones I skim. When I read my blog comments, I see that they really like me.

Lisa: Are any comments helpful or supportive?
Dana: It is helpful knowing that I’ve been able to help people, that I made it easier for people to talk about and go through this process. I am happy to read the advice in comments but I’m a strong-minded person and have my own ideas. It cracks my wife and me up when people suggest crazy cancer treatments.

Lisa: Are there gender differences in who reads or comments on your blog?
Dana: More women read my blog than men. Men and women respond differently: women tend to be more insightful and understand the emotion I’m trying to convey in the blog while men are more focused on data: name, rank, serial number. Men are more emotionally stunted in our society and think they have to be tough.

Lisa: Have you shown your blog to your doctors?
Dana: My oncologists have looked at it off and on, also the radiation technicians. They appreciate what I have to say. But I don’t write for them because my obligation is to my readers and fellow cancer patients.

Lisa: Is your blog edited?
Dana: My primary job is as an editor, so my posts go through a few drafts and then Tara Parker-Pope reads them and she may have some edits or changes which I look at. Finally a copy editor reviews it.

Lisa: How does the New York Times promote your blog?
Dana: It appears on the Health page with my picture, sometime highlighted at the top. Some posts have appeared as a most emailed article, which itself increases visibility, just like when a book appears on the bestseller list.

Lisa: Do you read other patient blogs?
Dana: I don’t. I spend time reading every day, but I read the New York Times and I read books. I try not to lose myself on the Internet. I’m 52, a dinosaur from age of print, although my sons are amused that I blog.

Lisa: Can you offer any advise about reading other people’s blogs or starting your own solely based on your own experiences?
Dana: I really don’t because I had the benefit of working here at The Times. But, if someone is obsessed about their situation and wants to write, then they should go ahead. It’s a big ol’ Internet.

June 22, 2010 at 3:14 am 3 comments

Why a Private Person Goes Public: Jesica Harringon’s Battle with Breast Cancer While Pregnant

Jesica Harrington is a 5th grade teacher at Timber Trail Elementary School in Castle Rock, Colorado whose patient story was featured on the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) website and in their 2009 Annual Report. Jesica was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with twins, lost one of the babies a month later, and “underwent a mastectomy before beginning four rounds of chemotherapy.” She searched for information online and found little on battling breast cancer while pregnant. Her father, who also searched, found out about a blood test that captures, identifies, and counts circulating tumor cells in patients with certain types of metastatic cancer, which Jesica asked her doctor to order. Jesica delivered a healthy baby boy, completed her cancer treatment, and is in remission. I contacted her because of my interest in patient stories, curious about how her story was featured by J&J and why she decided to tell her story in a very public way.

Lisa: You mentioned that being diagnosed with breast cancer when you were pregnant made it harder to find information. Did you find that the professionals treating were less prepared?

Jesica: Initially, the diagnosing doctor seemed insecure about diagnosing my cancer and in explaining how we would treat it.  It was through our (mine and my husband’s) persistence that we went around the recommended procedure and sought out an oncologist directly to help us learn about what we would do with breast cancer and being pregnant with twins.  My oncologist came highly recommended and had prior experience with women in my situation, so I felt I was in good hands.

Lisa: Did you search for information online about breast cancer and pregnancy, or did people recommend sites to you?

Jesica: I had friends send me all kinds of information, mostly success stories and current practices similar to what I was dealing with.  I searched for answers as well, especially because I had so many questions.  The problem was realizing there is a fine line between being/getting educated and just knowing too much.

Lisa: What did you find that was ultimately most helpful?

Jesica: Factual information about types of cancer, methods to treat, drugs and their side effects, and a couple of stories about local women, whom I talked with, who had been through breast cancer while pregnant.

Lisa: How did you learn about J&J’s test?

Jesica: My father was looking for methods to monitor how and if chemotherapy is working.  He came across a local news story, which led us to a newly released test used at the University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC).  He told me to take a look at the article, that it was something he thought I should do.  I contacted a rep from the UCCC and inquired how I could take the test.  I persuaded my oncologist to order the test and we went from there.

Lisa: Why did you decide to tell your story?

Jesica:   People were interested in the information I had.  I am a very private person, but also felt that this was something I had to share.  I couldn’t keep it secret, when my own life affected so many around me (students, parents, coworkers, family, friends, neighbors, doctors, other women in my situation, media…) In the back of my mind, I hoped that my diagnosis and battle with breast cancer could and would be used for future references.  After I had been diagnosed, all of my students and co-workers wanted to support me in my battle-they held a “carnival for the cure” from which all proceeds went to my family and me.  Through this event, local papers and news media were contacted.  My story initially appeared on a newscast and in a couple of newspapers.

Lisa: Would you have told others your story had your situation been more “typical”?

Jesica: Yes, but it wasn’t.  I knew that there had to be more people like me out there searching for information and feeling helpless.  Why not take what I’ve experienced and let others learn from it, both from a personal perspective and from a medical point of view.

Lisa: Can you tell me more about the process where J&J contacted, interviewed, and photographed you?

Jesica: Through a publication put out at UCCC, J&J contacted me about the CTC test. I was approached to educate people who are going through a similar experience and to get the word out about a test I found to be helpful during my treatment. I told J&J my story by phone and shared my CaringBridge page as well provided background about all I’d been through. A couple of people come out to interview me, take pictures, and shoot video, both at school while I was teaching and at home that evening. Everything was 100% accurate in both the article and video except they mentioned Boulder instead of Castle Rock in the video.

Lisa: How did you feel about including your students and your family?

Jesica: Fine; I thought it was for a good cause.  Someone could learn from my story and experiences and could see what to expect if they happen to be in the same situation.  I’d like to think I was a success story, which we all need to help us find motivation to fight a battle such as one with breast cancer.

Lisa: I was surprised J&J posted the two articles and videos at http://www.jnj.com/connect/caring/patient-stories/hope-against-cancer/ and http://www.investor.jnj.com/2009annualreport/medical-devices/hope.html without telling you – it seems like they should have let you know, do you agree?

Jesica: Yes.

Lisa: You mentioned that you did other interviews – what made you decide to?

Jesica: I felt strongly about letting others know about a blood test that was out there to help with tracking chemo throughout treatment.  I knew the information wasn’t prevalent and I wanted to get it out there.

Lisa: Has it been helpful for your friends and family that you were open about the process you were going though?

Jesica: Yes, information is very powerful.  I wanted my friends and family to know and understand what I was going through.  People always feel helpless when others are struggling with a disease and going through treatment and they don’t always know how to help, but by being open about it, I think they felt more comfortable in being there for me instead of feeling sorry for me.

Lisa: Finally, does it help you to know that you are helping others? Does talking about it help you process your own emotions?

Jesica: Yes, to both. I’m a teacher – it’s in my blood. I’ve written journals all my life; it’s something that helps me be able to process what comes my way, to reflect and cope.



June 16, 2010 at 6:09 pm 3 comments

From Twitter to Megaphones: Seven Lessons Learned about Public Health Crisis Communication

In Boston we took the availability and quality of our tap water for granted until May 1, 2010, when a major water pipe break interrupted water service to two million Greater Boston residents. Information spread quickly to citizens about the problem and what to do, all the more notable because the water main break occurred on a Saturday. In this age of consumer paranoia about withheld information, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) was in front of cameras and online, communicating what they knew and what they were doing. Tufts University and the Boston Public Health Commission used communication channels ranging from Twitter to megaphones to get the word out. Their behind-the-scenes emergency planning processes, their response to this incident, and seven lessons learned from this short-lived crisis are applicable to many other crises.

The Evolution of the Tufts Emergency Alert System

Because I learned about the broken water main in a text message from Tufts University, where I teach, I spoke to Geoff Bartlett, Technical Services Manager in the Department of Public and Environmental Safety (DPES) at Tufts about the process they used to communicate about the broken water main. First he told me how Tufts Emergency Alert System started and evolved. Following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, DPES, University Relations, and University Information Technology invested in emergency notification system technology and developed policies for when and how it would be used. The Tufts Emergency Alert System was initially intended for life threatening emergencies after the events on the Virginia Tech campus showed the need for rapid and reliable campus-wide communication. In requesting student and employee contact information, Tufts made this clear since they thought people would be reluctant to participate if they anticipated inconsequential messages.

Tufts first used the emergency alert system to inform the campus of the status of a power outage in October 2008 because the email communication plan in place for this type of Tier 2 emergency wouldn’t work because of the lack of electricity. This initial use led to the revised policy that the emergency alert system should be used aggressively for dire emergencies but less aggressively when there is no threat to health, safety, or life. Almost exactly one year later, there was another power outage in October 2009, and short text messages were sent. While there was planning for H1N1, the emergency alert system was never used because there was no urgency to push messages. The third use was for the water main break.

How Tufts Creates Messages

While Tufts considered preparing messages in advance, it didn’t seem possible to anticipate every situation. Instead they created “Strunk and White” guidelines for crisis communication. Their three guiding principles for creating initial messages are:

  1. What is happening
  2. What you need to do now
  3. Where to go for more information.

Messages must be succinct because of cell phone screen size and to increase the likelihood people read them, avoid jargon and abbreviations, and be composed for easy conversion into speech. While the Tufts community is tech-savvy, they are aware that not everyone is connected all the time therefore some messaging includes spreading the word. For many emergencies, especially life-threatening ones like violent criminal incident or tornado warning, content is pre-scripted by Tufts using sources such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

In the case of the water main break, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency sent out the initial message. When Geoff received the message on Saturday, May 1, he was in a command post on campus with police, fire, and EMS personnel where they were managing the public safety aspects of the Spring Fling concert. Because there was no reported danger or health threat, email was used initially. Later in the day, after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, DPES fully activated the emergency alert system. In addition, email, word of mouth, Twitter, and the web were used to spread information.

I asked Geoff if there was concern about any health issues arising from students who drank tap water. He said that there was an FAQ that included the consequences of ingesting water. However the information they were receiving from the state agencies, and therefore their focus, was on the status of the water main break and what to do, such as the boil water order. Student feedback after the crisis ended was largely positive but included that there were terms, like boil water order, that they didn’t understand.

The Boston Public Health Commission Emergency Preparedness Process

To see how a public health organization responded, I looked at the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) website and spoke to Susan Harrington. She had guest-lectured in my Online Consumer Health course about their use of the web and social media and I wanted to see how they deployed them in an emergency like the water main break.

BPHC and its partners participate in emergency preparedness exercises to refine their coordination and response. In 2007, BPHC worked with the postal office on a large-scale exercise and last year they responded to the real-life H1N1 epidemic. Just last month, BPHC invited businesses, health care settings, and other partner organization to a Flu Review, where they discussed how BPHC responded, including what they did well, what didn’t work, and made recommendations as they prepare for the next flu season this fall.

How the Boston Public Health Commission Alerted Residents

Susan was in a city not affected by the burst water main on the Saturday the news was announced and received a call from work alerting her to the situation. Working in concert with federal, state, and city agencies, the Mayor’s Office and BPHC relayed important information and coordinated response efforts. The immediate issue was reaching people, which the BPHC first did through Twitter, Facebook, and their website. The Mayor’s Office posted information on its own sites and used its reverse 911 phone system to alert residents. Boston police officers drove up and down streets using megaphones and loudspeakers. BPHC set up conference calls with area hospitals and staffers were sent out to food-service establishments who needed to quickly adapt their procedures for the boil water order. Throughout the weekend, the Mayor’s 24-hour hotline added staffers to help answer any questions residents had. The Mayor’s Office and BPHC also called upon their partners, which included faith-based organizations, schools, and businesses, to spread the message through their own channels, and asked residents to inform the elderly who may not have access to the web and social media. The challenge was responding quickly and reaching as many people, wired or not, as possible. These techniques had been used to spread the word about H1N1 vaccine availability.

Twitter proved very effective at relaying up-to-the-minute news. While Twitter is global, people use the #Boston hashtag and other filters to get local information including traffic updates, event listings, and even local celebrity sightings. Not long after boil water order was issued, the Twitterverse was abuzz with the news – even dubbing a new hashtag for the emergency: #aquapocolypse. The most influential – and most followed – Twitter profiles were not only pushing out timely information, but passing on questions to BPHC, allowing them to respond and dispel any myths.

Creating Fact Sheets

No matter what the crisis, some people worry and they are the ones who especially need facts. One of the main BPHC priorities was posting information and fact sheets to the BPHC website. As a homeowner Susan knew what questions she had, but she had to consider the broad demographics of Boston in terms of where people live, the languages they speak, and their access to water.

BPHC worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to create easy-to-read and culturally appropriate guidelines for the boil water order for Bostonians, including translating the fact sheets into multiple languages using a professional translation company with proofing by Commission staffers. These materials were later updated to reflect the lifting of the boil water order and subsequent flushing out instructions.

I asked Susan about the extent to which they date materials. In a crisis, knowing that an update is available and when it was issued is crucial. Throughout the flu response and boil water order, they posted dates on their websites, but in a non-emergency she said it is a challenge to keep an entire website updated. Fact sheets often are dated but other online materials may not be.

Health Issues and Disease Tracking

I taught a course in Shanghai once and remembered the advice I was given about the level of bacteria being higher in the tap water than Americans are used to. I slipped back into Shanghai-mode and remembered to rinse my toothbrush with bottled water and the myriad of other pointers I had been given. I was curious if Boston residents who drank tap water during the emergency expressed health concerns. Susan said that if pathogens were in the water, people may have experienced minor gastrointestinal illness after consuming that water. A greater concern would be for residents who are immunocompromised.

The BPHC uses a sophisticated surveillance system to track diseases in Boston. (In fact, Boston has been nationally recognized for its disease tracking system.) Health care settings report diseases to BPHC, which in turn, conducts a follow-up investigation and identifies the source of the illness, such as food contamination.  These disease patterns are tracked over time. In the case of the boil water order, there was no spike in gastrointestinal illnesses. Google has a less formal process of tracking disease patterns, collecting search phrases to find trends including the spread of illness. Google’s H1N1 flu trend matched up fairly well to Massachusetts’ trend lines.

Lessons Learned

Susan Harrington and Geoff Bartlett both thought the MWRA did a great job of letting people know what they knew, what they didn’t know, and what they were doing to find answers and repair the pipe. This was essential not just to inform people but to allay paranoia and fears given well-publicized situations like Toyota and Vioxx where information was not publicly disclosed in a timely fashion.

Some lessons learned about rapid health communication from the water main break are:

  1. Develop a rubric to assess the type of crisis as it impacts your institution. When the crisis is over, review, solicit feedback, and refine using what the military call an After Action Review.
  2. Identify and coordinate with partners in advance. In the case of the water main break, an impressive number of groups coordinated efforts seemingly seamlessly and, in many cases, behind the scenes. Ria Convery, Communications Director for the MWRA, told me that their response can be attributed to the 2-3 drills they perform every year “on a number of different scenarios ranging from dam failures to hurricanes to flu epidemics. Sometimes we perform a ‘tabletop’ exercise and sometimes we involve the whole universe of state agencies and run through an entire ‘event’. Every single drill, no matter the topic, provides an important opportunity for people to think through and be prepared for the worst case.”
  3. Prepare a communication plan for each type of crisis. While newspapers write obituaries for famous people in advance, you can’t anticipate all eventualities. However, you can prepare guidelines and immediately use them. Flexibility needs to be built in to communication plans, even to the definition of a life threatening emergency and when to select modalities that “wake you up” or more passive ones like email.
  4. Carefully construct messages to convey needed information succinctly. High-quality materials take time to produce because it’s important to first gather facts and then create and review accurate, appropriate, and easy-to-understand information, be they short like text and Twitter messages, or less constrained by length. Dating material is especially important in a crisis.
  5. Create messages that inform and allay unnecessary fears. Think like – or talk to – your target audience. Be careful about jargon, although everyone in Greater Boston quickly became conversant quickly with “MWRA” and “boil water order”, which are not in the common vernacular. Terminology was also an issue with H1N1: swine flu was the term adopted by the press initially, but it was distracting because of the association with pigs.
  6. Use social media, which can be both fast and local. Use emerging informal partners, who Malcolm Gladwell calls mavens, to facilitate the spread of messages in Twitter. But even when people are wired, they aren’t always online. The low tech megaphone and word of mouth works best for some.
  7. Use crises to educate people. While the water main break left many people with a heightened appreciation for their tap water, it was short-lived. However there may be a missed opportunity here to educate people about water sources, safety, and conservation as well as about emergency response.

June 8, 2010 at 8:47 pm 13 comments

Health Stories: Triggers for Seeking Health Information Online

When you design a health Web site, the most important questions to ask are how and why someone will come to your site. To help my Online Consumer Health students answer these questions for the sites they design, they create personas and then develop scenarios that start with the persona’s trigger for going online and continue with the persona’s ongoing education and support needs.

Triggers can be related to the calendar, the news, an existing health problem, a concern about a potential health issue, or a new diagnosis or prescription. Triggers can occur because of the time of year: searches for “diet” spike on the first week of each new year and crash a week later. Bill Tancer reported on the frequency of health searches related to a diagnosis of a famous person in the news. The most common trigger is the need to learn more about one’s own or a loved one’s health issue. Susannah Fox said, “A medical crisis flips a switch in people.” With 52% of online health inquiries on behalf of someone else, a loved one’s medical crisis is often the trigger that leads to health searches.

Jill D. is a researcher from New Hampshire whose mother was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal tract tumor. Shocked and worried when she heard this, Jill wanted to immediately learn more. She needed to understand what the diagnosis meant for herself and to help her mother understand it; she also needed to help her mother evaluate treatment options. Jill doesn’t live near her mother so couldn’t go with her mother on her next doctor’s appointment. She would have felt comfortable asking her own doctor questions, but didn’t have an appointment otherwise scheduled. So she went online.

In June 2006, my (then) 74-year-old Mom was told that she had a gastrointestinal tract tumor that was probably cancerous.  As soon as I heard, I wanted to find out what treatment options would likely be offered to my Mom as well as the statistical likelihood of survival.

I looked online for information because I’m not in my doctor’s office often enough to be able to ask my own physician, “Say, what do you know about tumors of the GI tract?”  Also, I wanted to browse through written information at my own pace rather than trying to listen closely to a quick data dump.

I looked online over the course of several evenings.  I know that the trustworthiness of information on any given website is highly dependent on the source of the information, so I concentrated on sites provided by highly reputable medical establishments such as the Mayo Clinic and the US National Institutes of Health.

By far the most useful information for my purposes was available at the National Cancer Institute.  The reason I found it so helpful is because I was able to read the same article in two versions, one intended for patients and the other for medical providers.  I am not a medical provider but I am used to reading dense, scientific journal articles.  Thus I carefully went through a page entitled, “Gastrointestinal Carcinoid Tumors Treatment“.

I learned that these tumors tend to grow very slowly and, if the tumor is localized, the 5-year survival rate is 70 – 90%.  My Mom was wondering if she would be subjected to radiation treatment but this article indicated that radiation is rarely helpful for these types of tumors so I told her that her oncologist would probably not prescribe radiation.  Further, I found out that tumors smaller than 1 cm rarely spread to other areas (metastasize) but that tumors greater than 2 cm frequently metastasize; this told me that my Mom’s 1.6 cm tumor could go either way.

None of the information in the preceding paragraph was available on the page intended for patients, so I was grateful for the chance to read the pages intended for health professionals.  I had to look up a few words, such as “telangeictasia” (the formal term for spider veins, one of the potential signs of GI carcinoid tumors).  Despite my incomplete medical vocabulary, I felt reasonably confident that I understood the article and wouldn’t misrepresent the information when relaying it to my Mom.

This story has a happy ending because my Mom underwent surgery to successfully remove the tumor and—even better—the tumor was not at all cancerous.  Six weeks after the operation my Mom was feeling healthier than she’d felt in years and went off on a long car trip.

January 31, 2010 at 7:36 am Leave a comment

How Celebrity Doctors Use their Online Presence to Communicate with Healthcare Consumers

Erin Dubich, a graduate student at Tufts, and I are doing a study about “celebrity” doctors who use their online presence to communicate with healthcare consumers.

Please help us by telling us which celebrity doctors you believe have an effective online presence and why: Dr. Gupta, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, Dr. Richard Besser, or another? We are interested in those who have Web sites, blogs, etc., unlike, say, Dr. Ruth, a celebrity doctor whose presence is not online.

The characteristics we are looking at are:

Basis of reputation (credentials, job, books, TV, etc.)
Website(s) featured on
Where seen besides website (TV, radio, books, syndicated column, etc.)
Topic(s) of advice/articles (general health, sexual health, etc.)
Type(s) of advice (ask the expert, interviews, etc.)
Why is the doctor an effective health communicator (timeliness, credibility, topics, reach to common concerns or fears, etc.)

If you have examples of celebrity doctors who you believe are not effective or exploit their fame or their position, we would like to hear that too.

Please post a comment or email me. We appreciate your help and will post our compiled results and conclusions.

January 12, 2010 at 7:40 am 11 comments

WebMD Gets an “A” for Swine Flu Guide and a “C” for Guide to Never Feeling Tired Again

WebMD.com is often listed as the most popular health Web site. I find their design is too busy and their content varies considerably in quality. Every time I look at WebMD for a specific purpose, I am distracted by the ads, such as a video advertisement playing next to the text I am reading – how distracting is that? Sometimes I am there for a specific purpose and find myself clicking on the slide show or provocatively-titled articles – did someone say stickiness?

Some of their content deserves an “A”. In an analysis, their Swine Flu Guide was superior to the CDC’s and other sites at providing answers to the questions likely to be on healthcare consumer’s minds.

Other content is less impressive. The most recent article that I read when I was at WebMD for a different purpose was the irresistibly-titled guide to never feeling tired again. I was surprised that the guide, subtitled “22 ways to tackle life’s biggest energy zappers”, was from Redbook Magazine since I thought WebMD wrote their own content. The first page of the four-page article was about how to “Energize Your Diet”. It recommended that I eat breakfast to feel perkier, stay hydrated, etc. While I questioned is I wanted to feel perkier, most of the advice seemed reasonable.

I had just finished teaching a course and asked one my students, Alicia Romano, a master’s candidate in the Friedman Nutrition School at Tufts University School of Medicine and a Dietetic Intern at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center, for her opinion on the article. She responded,

As far as the nutrition related pieces are concerned (generally the first page of the article) the information is pretty accurate in terms of increasing your energy throughout the day (keeping your blood sugars stable and staying hydrated).  I haven’t read much related to the omega-3’s and increasing your energy, so that was interesting.  As far as the other information was concerned, it sounded a little “fluffy” to me, to be honest.  I think all of the tips are good, but overall, I think getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, exercising, and eating healthy and frequently throughout the day are the major keys to energy.  I was not too happy to see that they reviewed some of the new “products” at the end.  I have never even heard of half of those, and I’m sure most readers haven’t either.  If anything they are going to be informing readers of these products that they shouldn’t even try.  Their reviews weren’t on the efficacy either, just a simple quotation. I think the title is a little deceiving as well, but then again, it is from a magazine (Redbook).  I was actually surprised to see they would post a magazine article on WebMD (Personal correspondence, A.R, August 11, 2009).

I appreciate Alicia’s assessment and, based on her analysis and mine, I give the article a “C”. Some good suggestions but only a few references, no links, an introduction with only the merest hint of the content, and no conclusions or resources for further exploration. While WebMD provides many mechanisms to share an article, there are none to comment on or rate the accuracy or usefulness of an article so neither Alicia or I could post our feedback. I looked for the original Redbook article and found that while it seemed essentially the same, although split onto more pages, the links to useful sites such as the American Dietetic Association (ADA) were removed in the WebMD version. Can I lower the “C” to a “C-“?

August 29, 2009 at 11:37 pm 1 comment

Empathy Without Communication Is Mind Reading

Pam Ressler, RN, BSN, HN-BC, and I discussed how healthcare professionals, family, and friends use empathy vs. sympathy to respond to someone who is ill when I told her about my blog post. Pam had insights based on both professional and personal experiences. She told me about Empathy vs. Emotional Reasoning in Nursing, in Advance for Nurses, which Pam posted a blog entry about. The article defines empathy and emotional reasoning as:

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand another person’s circumstances, point of view, thoughts and feelings. When experiencing empathy, one should be able to understand someone else’s internal experiences.

Emotional reasoning is defined as ‘a cognitive error whereby a person who is nervous or anxious resorts to emotional reactions to determine a course of action.’

The article advises “empathy without communication is mind reading. Listen to patients; provide education, but don’t give advice.”

Pam also mentioned a study about doctors and empathic communication that “sheds light on the types of situations and remarks that physicians should recognize as opportunities to express understanding and support… empathic responses can be brief and do not make consultations longer.”

July 16, 2009 at 10:10 pm Leave a comment

Finding Useful H1N1 Information Online

I was interviewed for Healthcare IT News about how H1N1 information is disseminated to the public. While the news media was providing constant updates about outbreaks, my interest was in how healthcare consumers get useful information. I sent the author, Molly Merrill, a quick analysis of some of the sources of information I had used.

The CDC is known and established as the most respected source of information in this country and comes up as one of the first results in most searches on “swine flu” or “H1N1”. Their site is well-branded and is clearly marked with the last updates. However the site itself is busy with sidebars and lots of related information, while arguably the most important information for most healthcare consumers is in a box near the bottom, “What You Can Do to Stay Healthy”. What is likely to be prevalent on most people’s minds doesn’t appear at all here. If you click on “H1N1 Flu & You” near the bottom, a Q&A format addresses the questions people are likely to have, such as “What are the signs and symptoms of this virus in people?” In addition, the CDC has done a great job of using social media, such as twitter, for updates.
 
While I applaud the Massachusetts Department of Public Healthfor providing material in 14 languages, the page itself is basically a collection of links to PDFs. The documents I read are are well-written but some are not even what the links say; for instance, under “Resources if You Are Sick or Think You Are Sick”, the Flu Symptoms Checklist was designed for a parent to determine if a child should be kept home from school or brought to the doctor.
 
WebMD’s Swine Flu Centerdoes a better job of providing immediately visible and useful information through clearly labeled links to answer common questions such as “Swine Flu and Travel”. Due to poor health literacy skills and the fears that have been played upon by the media frenzy, health Web sites should provide very specific information that addresses the concerns uppermost on a healthcare consumer’s mind and it should take minimal scrolling to find it, as is the case here. 
 
Finally, my town, Lexington, MA, has done a great job of addressing parental concerns through emails. The school department Web site provides a parent resource with guidelines about how to talk to your child, a huge problem when children hear a lot on the media and from their friends and need to hear factual age-appropriate information from their parents. And, when one of my sons was out sick for a few days, I received a phone call from the school nurse!

June 9, 2009 at 9:43 pm 4 comments

The Doctor as the Second Opinion and the Internet as the First

In “The Doctor as the Second Opinion and the Internet as the First,” I describe the increasing common phenomenon of people using the Internet before seeing their doctor:

People who use the Internet for health information often obtain their first opinion that way, and then, if they go to a doctor, the doctor’s advice is relegated to the second opinion. Using the Internet, or Dr. Google, as a first opinion can be problematic due to misinformation, misinterpretation of valid information, and the fears that can arise due to lack of medical knowledge, inexperience, and limited perspectives. When patients do visit their doctor for a second opinion, some do not disclose the fact they already received their first opinion and often their doctors do not ask. The result is that patients may suffer needlessly if their fears, concerns, misunderstandings, and misinterpretations are not addressed by the healthcare providers with the expertise and skills to assist them. A pernicious disconnect exists between many patients who use the Internet for health information and the medical professionals who care for them. The medical profession can alleviate this disconnect by taking the lead in establishing guidelines for systematically talking to patients about, and guiding, their Internet research. Human-computer interaction professionals can collaborate with the medical community in ensuring credible health Web sites become the gold standard that patients use to achieve better health.

I appreciate any feedback, insights, or experiences.

February 16, 2009 at 1:27 am 15 comments

Cereal and the Internet or Can’t I Eat My Breakfast without Going Online?

CB065151The four breakfast cereal boxes sitting on my kitchen counter all have urls to promote healthy eating. Not having noticed that before, I checked if all food packing has urls now, and discovered that many do, but they are primarily, in my small sampling, to enter contests, get recipes, or go to the corporate website. While some of the cereal packages similarly have urls for recipes and the like as well, what I was interested in was the healthy eating information.

Starting with my personal favorite, the Quaker Oats oatmeal package told me that it is one of the “over 250 smart choices made easy from Pepsi Co.” at smartspot.com. There I learned about “energy balance”, why eating breakfast is healthy, and found a link to The Breakfast Research Institute, which is sponsored by Quaker and Tropicana. There, the Breakfast Calculator told me that my breakfast of choice, while higher in calories than a doughnut and cup of coffee, is also significantly more nutritious and brings me closer to meeting my daily recommended nutrition requirements. I could compare my breakfast to their pre-set breakfasts and even tweak mine to increase the nutritional value. And, for my breakfast entertainment, there were podcasts!

After that, I barely wanted to check the other sites out but did out of curiosity. Corn Chex had wholegrainnation.com, where I took a multiple choice quiz about whole grains. Honey Nut Cheerios offered eatbetteramerica.com (which wholegrainnation.com is part of), where I found lots of recipes, a discussion forum, a blog, and more. The blog entries I read all linked to “healthified” recipes in which some ingredients are replaced with alternatives so the result is “as yummy” but “better-for-you”. Finally, Raisin Bran has kelloggsnutrition.com, where “master-moms” taught me how to “snacktivate”.

If I was creating a website that a cereal box led to, based on my perusal of these sites, I would:

  • think of common misspellings for my url and buy the domains – typing in kelloggnutrition.com with one “g”, as I first did, should still lead to the right website
  • make sure that my discussion forums were not stale (no pun intended) – topics from over a month ago would not be tagged as new
  • determine if there is a pedagogical or branding advantage to coining my own terms, such as “healthified” and “snacktivate”
  • use the simplicity of cereal – it is generally eaten for breakfast in a bowl with milk – as a guiding principle rather than developing a complex or overwhelming site
  • most of all, I would promote healthy eating for breakfast through advice that could be immediately used

The sites I looked at collectively offered advice on all aspects of diet and fitness, not just breakfast, through articles, tests, tools, forums, podcasts, and ask the expert, oriented primarily to parents but with sections for professionals, educators, and children. But what is the likelihood that someone will peruse this abundance of  information and implement significant lifestyle changes before rushing off to school or work?

Ultimately, I preferred the Breakfast Research Institute. It just focused on breakfast. It was the only site that provided me with immediately useful and actionable advice: that adding a piece of fruit to my current breakfast of oatmeal would give me a healthier start to my day. And it confirmed what I already knew, although affirmation is always beneficial: that my current breakfast is far superior nutritionally to coffee and a doughnut.

January 11, 2009 at 11:44 pm 1 comment

How Much Chocolate Should Anyone Eat and How Much Should Anyone Rely on Health Forum Advice

I love chocolate but have never considered that the amount I eat is unhealthy. In fact, how common is it to eat chocolate – or any other food – to the point of being worried? In the case of white_sakura (someone’s user id), she (I believe the people posting here are female) said in a forum, “I was wondering if it is too much to have about 30% of my calorie allowance to go toward chocolate.” The forum, part of calorie-count, from About.com Health, is a site for people who are concerned about weight loss and nutrition.

In response to her post, w_s, as someone nicknamed her, received 6 responses in 2 days and also provided clarification a few times. It was quite a lively discussion compared to some forums, where questions go permanently unanswered. In the ensuing discussion, one person told w_s what seemed like practical advice to me: “30% would be too much. Chocolate, although lovely, is just sugar and fat… the real downside is that you’d be trying to get all your nutrition from the remaining 70% of your diet.” Another agreed, “30% is waayyyy too high.” Someone else differed in her view, “If it fits in your cals and you feel good, go for it!”

Other advice was to try savoring her chocolate – which w_s was already doing, taking an hour to eat 2 squares. Wow, she must not have a busy schedule. I suppose you could savor the taste of chocolate for hours as long as you don’t work in a call center where you have to answer the phone and talk to people. Or any other occupation where you have to talk to people. Or touch anything. That doesn’t leave many jobs.

A side discussion had to do with the reported health benefits of dark chocolate, including a link to an article in WebMD, which reports on a study and concludes that a balanced diet and exercise is the key to a healthy heart. The same person wrote about her own daily chocolate consumption, which “keeps me from overindulging in some other not-so-good-for-me things”. Did she mean licorice, Pringles, or more serious vices?

Many people are more comfortable seeking peer advice online, often more open anonymously than they would be with their doctor – or a close friend. (Actually, that made me wonder if w_s has a spouse or roommate, and, if so, does she eat in front of him or her?) It’s also heartwarming that people respond, and most empathically. No one called w_s obsessive or addicted or recommended that she take a leap into Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate. However, only two responses seemed medically sound, those saying that 30% is too high. No one suggested making an appointment with a doctor or nutritionist or following a plan for a nutritionally-balanced diet.

There was only one mention of a specific product in a response, a type of Lindt chocolate. After reading that I noticed that the banner ad was for car insurance and the sidebar ad was for flights to London – now Switzerland I could understand! More relevant to the discussion topic, the banner at the bottom was a meter for diabetics. That ad crystallized the issue for me: poor nutrition can have severe consequences. My advice to w_s: getting anonymous online advice is great but this is a case where professional medical advice could add healthy years to your life.

August 19, 2008 at 1:26 pm 12 comments

Optimal Use of a Scale for Weight Loss

I perused a weight loss site, The DailyPlate, curious how they support people who are trying to lose weight. The site’s raison d’être seems to be tracking of calories consumed and burned. I checked out swing dancing, my favorite activity, only to find that of the seemingly countless types of dancing, swing burns 296 calories an hour for an average 145-pound person, over twice what accordion-playing burns. On the advertiser-supported site, Lance Armstrong lets me know what to do if I’m “tired of being tired”.

Since I found the effort of calculating calories burnt overwhelming with so many choices – how many calories did I burn searching for my activities? – I looked at the forums. I came across the very practical question of when is the best time of day to weigh oneself. It’s a fascinating question because it is so practical yet complex, as evidenced by the varied responses which depicted the emotional impact of weight loss or gain. The posts contained humor, mostly about doctors, euphemisms, and advice from personal experience or from the writer’s doctor or nutritionist.

ScaleI liked how supportive people were, in much the same way I’ve seen in other health forums. The responses showed the incredible range of opinions on how to use a scale as part of weight loss and, futhermore, the extent to which devices come with instructions for set up and maintenance but not for use. My scale is the most complex one I’ve ever owned, and, while I can change the battery, I do not avail myself of all of its features (feature creep is a growing problem in previously simple devices, including the toothbrush and the scale). But, like my lesson in videoconferencing, where I learned how to connect sites around the world without any advice about how to engage students, sometimes devices need instructions for optimal use. Should the AMA weigh in?

June 21, 2008 at 1:09 am 10 comments

Why Ted Kennedy Isn’t Obsessively Searching the Internet

Sen. Ted Kennedy was diagnosed this week with a malignant tumor. I bet he is not online looking for answers right now. Why? Because the answers have been provided by some of the world’s experts. In fact, they are there for everyone to read in the Boston Globe and other newspapers, complete with graphics.graphic

Some say health is the great equalizer. (Others call education, the internet, – you name it – the great equalizer.) Many studies have examined health disparities and looked at the impact of health insurance, ethnicity, gender, and other factors on the quality of health and health care.

Health disparities aside, anyone can become ill. Everyone’s hearts go out to Sen. Kennedy and his family at his diagnosis. But many people, given a devastating diagnosis – or even a minor one – turn to the internet for help.disparities

Before the internet, people relied primarily on their doctors. Now they rely on their doctors and the internet. But do people use the internet because they want to or because they have to?

Most people do not have world-renowned experts chiming in on the best course of treatment. Even the graphics – I can only remember one time that a doctor drew a sketch for me.

My friend Maureen emailed me:

I certainly have used the internet for health information. Usually what I find scares the daylights out of me! Or it’s too general and simplistic- until I find the right sites. Since I’m such a worrier I always need to be careful in that regard because it can be addictive- just one more search!

Maureen, a physician’s daughter, uses the internet for herself and her family, as do many others, obsessively searching for answers. People like Maureen and me use the internet because we are not rich or famous enough to have teams of experts to treat us. Ultimately, no one wants to be ill and, if they are, they want the best expertise available.

May 24, 2008 at 5:43 am 3 comments

The Impact of the Democratization of Health Information on Elders

Hongtu Chen and I, with some inspiration from Larry Prusack, just finished a journal paper on The Impact of the Democratization of Health Information on Elders. Here is the abstract:

Thanks to the Internet, elders have access to an unprecedented amount of health information about diseases and medications.  Much of this is information previously only available to medical professionals. The ease of locating – or the democratization of – health information has benefits and drawbacks. The benefits to elders are the ability to learn about all aspects of health whenever they choose. The drawbacks are that, due to lack of medical training and poor health literacy, they may not be able to effectively discern the quality of, comprehend, and use what they find online, and, worse, may rely on what they find online instead of seeking professional medical care.

May 19, 2008 at 12:12 am 1 comment

Eliot Spitzer Would Be Better Off If He Practiced What He Preached

Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, is embroiled in a scandal and announced that he “failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself”. His alleged actions are more notable because of his anti-corruption stance. (I also heard that governor was his stepping stone to the White House, which may never happen now.)

Not ever wanting to be accused of not practicing what I preach, I went to my list of Ten Things You Can Do in Ten Minutes To Be a More Successful e-learning Professional and did #8, to contact an e-learning expert. Actually, it was my own spin on #8, but creativity and designing for our target audience are part of our profession!

Here’s what I did: I emailed Don Norman, who is an expert at many things, including e-learning, and is one of the people I most admire. I will add a caveat here that I know him and have asked him for advice before so I felt hopeful that he would respond. Don gave me brief feedback on the issue I asked him about, promising more since he was preparing for a trip, and detailed feedback on my blog, in particular, on my recent post on The Disconnect Between Patients and Doctors. As a result of this, I am writing a new post since I agree with his points.

Hence I have practiced what I preach and am better off for it since the insights I received will make me more successful. I bet Governor Spitzer wishes he had listened to his own advice.

March 11, 2008 at 11:29 pm 1 comment

Using MySpace for Health Information: Where is the Empathy?

MySpace has over 300 million accounts as of 2/3/08 and was the #1 website in the US at least one week in 2006. If someone is a regular user of MySpace and has a health question, it is easy to turn to one’s community for help. MySpace Forums have a Health and Fitness section with exercise, general, and nutrition forums. The most active discussion under Nutrition is a thread on diets started 6/9/05 and it includes a post from someone who offer 59 ways to eat less of which many are potentially extremely dangerous. The 1300 replies range from serious posts about anorexia to advertisements. The other forums are similar, with a mix of serious, frivolous, and seemingly harmful discussions about bodybuilding, natural remedies, steroids, etc. There is a broader mix of comments than in most health forums and the amount that are off topic or what I perceive as far from helpful is far greater than in other forums I have looked at. Most other health forums tend toward highly supportive comments or advice. Are there different social norms in MySpace that lead to less empathic behavior?

March 10, 2008 at 5:32 am 10 comments

The Disconnect Between Patients and Doctors

In yesterday’s talk, Patient, Heal Thyself: How to Succeed with Online Consumer Health Sites, I started off by asking if I should lose 10 lbs. on the Atkins diet or by joining Weight Watchers. Melanie Zibit answered that I would lose the weight more slowly with Weight Watchers but would be more likely to keep it off. Most people agreed that this was good advice (the wisdom of crowds). I then asked if knowing anything about the weight loss experience or medical credentials of the advice-giver would have an impact, which people agreed with. Using sites like Amazon.com, a book-purchasing decision can be made based on the wisdom of crowds (ranking and ratings), expert opinions (from professional reviewers or well-known people in the field), or other readers (whose reviews are themselves rated). But a poor book choice has few ramifications, while health decisions can have severe consequences.

Many people get weight loss or any other type of health advice from strangers or friends, often knowing little about their experience or credentials; from books or magazines (every celebrity seems to have a weight loss secret or problem, based on a perusal at the supermarket check-out); from ads in magazines or television; or even from spam (I get frequent offer for weight loss drugs without a doctor’s prescription). People also learn about weight loss online – 49% of U.S. internet users search for diet or nutrition advice and 80% search for health advice. A search for “weight loss” returned 75,000,000 results, with “diet” and “fat” getting even more, and “weight” returning 1/2 billion results! Weight loss is certainly a common concern, but searches on other health topics also yield millions of results.

The results range from the Mayo Clinic to herbal remedies “As Seen on Oprah”. Most health seekers gather “health advice online without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information they find“. Information and health literacy impact the search results people select and the sites they use. Poor information literacy skills impact people’s ability to discern the quality of information. Poor health literacy skills – the lack of understanding about health coupled with the emotional burden of health concerns – make it far too easy for people to desire and seek magical cures or easy solutions. There are few reliable indications of quality; the only “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” in health is HONcode.

Sites vary in their usefulness, accuracy, branding, presence of advertising, and amount of interactivity, to name a few attributes. The most heavily used sites are WebMD.com and RevolutionHealth.com, both covering all diseases and conditions. Other sites are more specialized, such as Leroy Sievers’ heavily commented cancer blog at NPR.org, the very focused discussions on the Road Back Foundation bulletin board, and the well-segmented and very active community message boards at Weightwatchers.com. There are millions more examples, well-designed and dreadful, heavily used and ghost towns, frequently updated and unchanged in 10 years.

With consumer-directed care, patients are being asked to play a greater role in their health care. Providers are putting considerable effort into Electronic Health Records, Pay-for-Performance – countless initiatives to improve quality, reduce errors, and cut costs. But when a someone lies in bed at night worrying about their own health or that of a loved ones, EHR privacy is unlikely to be what is on their mind. Turning to the internet is easy with the constant availability – no need for an appointment or co-pay.

Consumer health sites have a significant impact on the quality of life of their users who turn to them before – or instead of – seeking medical help. Many doctors don’t know what their patients are doing online, and many dread the patient who arrives at an appointment armed with search results. “There’s so much information (as well as misinformation) in medicine — and, yes, a lot of it can be Googled — that one major responsibility of an expert is to know what to ignore,” but patients often lack that expertise.

That is where the disconnect lies between patients and doctors: that the time spent online is invisible to or an annoyance to a doctor but is a lifeline for many patients. Doctors need to understand and learn from their patient’s information seeking behaviors. And there is a lot to learn since what patients communicate online is a very different lens on their concerns and needs than what a doctor hears during a consultation, which is a small snapshot of how the patient is feeling, provided in a location much less comfortable than the patient’s home. And doctors need to “prescribe” sites with reliable and useful information, and online health communities where peer support is available.

Technology is not the answer, even good design is not the answer – although both can help. So can better information and health literacy skills. The greatest impact will come from bridging the chasm between what patients are currently doing online and what takes place during the doctor-patient consultation.

March 7, 2008 at 9:36 am 5 comments

Patient, Heal Thyself: How to Succeed with Online Consumer Health Sites

I spoke today at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council Healthcare Lunch & Learn Series on Patient, Heal Thyself: How to Succeed with Online Consumer Health Sites. My co-presenters were John Lester (also known as Pathfinder Linden) who left Second Life for Waltham and Amir Lewkowicz, co-founder and Vice President for Partnerships at Inspire. I will post my notes shortly but until then, here is the abstract:

With consumer-directed care, patients are being asked to play a greater role in their health care. Moreover, those with chronic diseases often get better counsel from other sufferers than they do from physicians. This talk will cover the most effective ways to design and evaluate online health communities.

Changes in the health care system and the pervasiveness of the Internet have led to an increased use of the Internet by health care consumers. 80% of people in the US who use the Internet are using it for health searches.

Health web sites and online health communities provide a means for patients and their families to learn about an illness and seek support. The importance of online consumer health is evidenced by the popularity of sites such as WebMD and RevolutionHealth. Consumer health sites have a significant impact on the quality of life of their users who turn to them before seeking medical help.

Health web sites and online health communities raise difficult design challenges. These challenges include wide variability of participant’s medical expertise, health literacy, and technology literacy. A major risk is the potential consequences when poor advice is taken or when professional treatment is not sought.

By participating in this interactive discussion you will learn:

1) How online communities benefit consumers and businesses
2) How the nature of the disease or illness impacts site design
3) How innovative Web 2.0 technologies can enhance participation
4) What is necessary to start and sustain successful sites

March 6, 2008 at 2:16 am 6 comments

If people don’t listen to their doctors, who do they listen to?

A WSJ Online/Harris Interactive Health-Care Poll found that a majority of U.S. adults believe that medical providers over-treat or under-treat their medical conditions. While sometimes this leads to getting a second opinion, other times it leads to not filling a prescription or getting a diagnostic test. The Kaiser Women’s Health Survey found that 22% of women “expressed concerns about the quality of care they got from their physicians or health care providers, compared to 17% of men. This issue was a particular problem for women in fair or poor health (40%).” The nurse practitioner in my doctor’s office once told me that more people take the advice of a stranger in the supermarket check-out line than her advice. There are many efforts to increase the number of people with health insurance, but the availability of affordable professional expertise does not necessarily mean that advice is taken.

I gave a keynote address on Online Communities: Innovative Notions of Expertise and Peer Learning, and started my talk by asking if I should use Weight Watchers or Atkins to lose 10 pounds. Saul Carliner, who was prepared to be a plant in the audience if no one else answered immediately, gave a compelling argument for the long term benefits of Weight Watchers. I then asked who agreed with him, and almost everyone did. One of the few people who hadn’t raised her hand said that diet and exercise need to be tightly coupled, but we agreed that she was only enhancing Saul’s response. I pointed out that we had (1) an opinion from one (somewhat anonymous) person and (2) the wisdom of crowds agreeing with him. I then asked how Saul’s advice would be looked at if (3) we knew that he had successfully lost and kept off weight or (4) we knew that he had a professional experience as a nutritionist. I went on to give a corresponding example on Amazon.com of how book reviews can fit into these categories. However, making a book selection has little cost, while health choices can have enormous consequences.

In What Doctors Don’t Know (Almost Everything), Kevin Paterson writes, “From the first day in the cadaver room and on, every medical student is drilled with this truism: ‘Medicine is both an art and a science.'” He goes on to write that “intuition is certainly an indispensable part of medicine. The body is so complex, and the ways it might go wrong so varied, that in the middle of the night, standing next to some fresh catastrophe, a doctor sometimes needs to generalize and to reduce very complicated problems to first principles. It is simply not possible to be rigorously intellectual and consult the available medical data about every single thing, all the time.”

Even if doctors don’t know everything, they know a lot. But if people don’t listen to their doctors, who do they listen to and are they receiving sound advice?

January 6, 2008 at 5:19 pm 3 comments


Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa: lisa.gualtieri@tufts.edu

@lisagualtieri


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