Posts tagged ‘cancer’

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

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

Blogging for Health: Survey about Why People Blog about an Illness

Pam Ressler, RN, BSN, HN-BC, one of my students, and I are researching why people choose, or don’t choose, to start and maintain a blog about a health condition. We would appreciate your answers to these questions. We will publish the results of our study here as well. Please respond in a comment or email me.

If you have a blog:

When and why did you start your blog?
What do you see at the primary reason(s) you continue blogging?
How often do you typically post?
What types of feedback do you receive? How many comments do you typically get to each post?
Do you know how many unique visitors you have during a particular time period (say 2009)?
Do you do anything to promote your blog or attract new readers?
Do you use your real name in your blog?
Do you read other blogs by people with health issues and, if so, which and why?
Have you shown your blog to your doctor or other healthcare professional?

If you don’t blog:

Why didn’t you blog about your illness? Did you consider blogging about your illness?
What do you see as the primary reason(s) you didn’t blog about your illness?
If you have discussed your illness with individuals besides your healthcare team, how have you done so (phone, email, in-person support groups, discussion boards, etc.)?
Do you read other blogs by people with health issues and, if so, which and why?

If you know of someone who blogs about their health, please forward this to them or let us know how to contact the person.

January 23, 2010 at 8:50 am 29 comments

Why I Became Interested in Health Literacy

Much like love and religion, health literacy is a topic that many people have a revelation about. It is not explicitly taught in school (unless you study Health Communication or a related topic); instead people have personal experiences that lead them to learn about health literacy and recognize its importance in all aspects of healthcare.  

My health literacy revelation came while I was a patient advocate for a Cambodian refugee who had cancer. I won’t go into the details of his health condition; just that I took him and his wife to his doctor’s appointments. During the appointments, I encouraged him to talk about his symptoms and medication side effects and asked about test results and treatment options until I understood them. I always made sure the couple were following and checked to see if they had questions.

There are many aspects of patient advocacy I could expand upon, but what struck me the most was how the couple would ask me on the drive home and even weeks later to repeat what the doctor had said. This was information that I retained but they did not. As I started to read about this, I discovered that studies had been done on the emotional impact of disease and how comprehension and retention were impacted.

While language and culture may had been factors, I believe fear had a stronger impact on this couple’s health literacy skills. Now, when I teach, I include health literacy, especially for its role in the design and evaluation of health Web sites. When someone goes to a health Web site, poor health literacy skills can influence the search terms used, the Web sites selected, and how information is used.

October 7, 2009 at 9:50 pm 11 comments

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

What’s the Right Thing to Say to Someone Who Is Ill?

When I ran into Paul S. not knowing he had cancer, I barely recognized him and struggled with what to say. “What happened?” didn’t seem appropriate, although it was my initial reaction. I believe I said, “I barely recognized you,” which was true. I’ve been in many situations where I wasn’t sure what to say to someone who was ill or in distress; I wanted to be supportive but wasn’t sure what would be perceived as helpful.

I’ve been on the receiving end too; most recently when my father died and I remembering saying to myself many times, “I know he/she means well” when their words did not comfort me. I only once curtailed a conversation, when, within minutes after hearing about his death, a friend started telling me a long, involved story about a mutual friend’s father. I stopped her, said that I knew she meant to be supportive but I could not listen right now, and walked away.

People so often mean well but don’t know what to say. I asked Paul S. what he found helpful and he thought it was very dependent on personality. He describes himself as “a very logical, rational, controlled-emotions kind of person, so I hear comments such as you made as empathetic or at worst neutral. ‘Wow, Paul, you look like crap!’ ‘Darn right – I feel like crap.’ I actually like that.  But I have known other people who are really bothered by exactly that type of observation. They want sympathy and understanding, but not observation, if you get my distinction. A worried LOOK, and an inquiry about how they are feeling, seems to be what they need. Which I value too. So I guess that’s the safe thing to do.”

When I told Paul about my experience with the friend who I walked away from, he understood my reaction and said, “What I did not want to hear is what you heard: somebody else’s story, not really relevant, and depressing. That’s indicative of a person who isn’t able to listen.” Of course, I was the one who was actually there and don’t think that the person couldn’t listen, but didn’t know what to say and felt moved to say something. The opportunities for mismatch between what one person says and the other person needs are abundant!

The difficulties are compounded by the distinction between advice and information, as Paul articulated, “The other thing I did not want to hear is advice about what I should do or not do – I’m getting the best care available, and I’m pretty competent to take care of myself. But then unsolicited advice is almost never welcome, right? What I DID appreciate, however, was INFORMATION. I didn’t include this in my story, but when I shared my situation with a friend at church, he reported that his mother had experienced something similar and had done extensive research on the web regarding Cisplatin and hearing loss. At my request, he contacted his mother who then e-mailed me several specific web links to good information sites. THAT interaction spurred me to do more research than I had done before.”

When I ran into Paul, my immediate thought was not to offer meals or rides, but sometimes this is the most helpful thing one can say. Paul agrees,”The other thing that was nice, though I didn’t really need it, was offers of help, such as rides to chemo or offers to bring food or visit. I think it’s my personal style to not want or need much of that – I was able to drive the whole time, and didn’t want to put somebody to a lot of trouble; my taste buds and my appetite were shot, plus my partner was taking care of my food needs; and I just wanted to be left alone to vegetate in front of the TV when I felt bad, and not feel like I needed to keep up a conversation or be nice. But I’ve known other people – my (now former) partner is one – who in a similar situation would want almost around-theclock company and help. So it’s good to ask and offer help, as long as you’re prepared to accept ‘thanks, but no thanks’.”

While Paul doesn’t think he is typical, it may be that no one really is in times of need. Which, of course, helps one to appreciate the people who do say or offer exactly what you need at that moment.
Paul also deal with the the common problem of how to keep people informed through email, which is a way of reaching out to people as well and a way of avoiding having the same conversation repeatedly. Paul recounted his experience, “On a closely related topic, something I did that had a surprising and wonderful result: When I entered the hospital, I did a broadcast e-mail to a ton of friends, advising them of the immediate situation and inviting them to opt in to periodic e-mail updates. More than 60 people opted in! Sending those broadcasts helped me feel connected, and I often got lots of replies. But the most surprising thing that kept happening was that they THANKED me for keeping them posted. That blew me away. It still does a year later. True friends WANT to know, want to share the burden. Too many people feel ashamed or embarrassed or unimportant, and they miss this incredible opportunity to strengthen relationships by sharing their situations. Sure, there are folks who complain too much, so it can go the wrong way. My messages were factual and hopeful, even when I felt like crap, and that seemed to inspire a lot of people, which in turn made me feel that something good was coming out of this not-so-good time. I don’t know whether this fits into what you’re trying to do, but I would sure encourage people who find themselves in similar situations to reach out and stay in touch.” There are Web sites for exactly this purpose, but email is certainly simple and, in this case, effective. There are also many people who blog their illness; one of the most moving that I read was NPR journalist Leroy Siever’s My Cancer.

July 7, 2009 at 9:19 pm 3 comments

Health Stories: “The Price I Must Pay for Being Cured of My Tumor”

I almost didn’t recognize Paul S. when I saw him with no hair looking rather gaunt. He told me about his cancer and about his experiences with treatment, which included side effects during chemotherapy of potentially permanent hearing loss and numbness in his hands and feet. Paul felt like he had to do his own research because he was not “getting satisfactory answers from my treatment provider”. Here is his story:

I was diagnosed with a germ cell tumor and endured nine weeks of chemotherapy. I was advised of the side effects of the three chemo drugs in a very routine way, emphasizing the nausea, but not dwelling on the other effects, and not really mentioning that some side effects could be permanent.

One of the three drugs was Cisplatin (cisplatinum), a complex compound that includes platinum. During the first round of chemo, I experienced a high-frequency hearing loss. While I could still function in terms of hearing and speaking to other people, I was very aware of the loss in listening to music and even the normal background of everyday sounds – sounds were not as crisp as they had been.

I consulted my oncologists, one of whom said that this was a known side effect of Cicplatin, and that most people recovered their hearing when the drug therapy ended. I asked what he meant by “most”. He replied, “About 70 percent.” Now 70 percent may be “most” to him, but it sure isn’t to me.

From the beginning of my illness, I had started broadcasting news of my illness and treatment via e-mail to interested friends – an opt-in list after the first broadcast. One of the friends replied to my news of hearing loss with research and experience that his mother had acquired in dealing with a similar issue. This spurred me to do some investigation of my own, and it wasn’t hard to find lots of information on Cisplatin with a simple Google search.

What I learned is that Cicplatinhas been used for chemotherapy treatment for several decades, that the hearing loss side effect has been well known for most of that time, and that somewhat extensive research has been done on the nature of the effect and on ways to protect the body from the side effect while still getting tumor-reducing effects from the drug. The drug continues to be used because it has proven highly effective in killing tumor cells with otherwise not-too-awful side effects.

The bottom line is that there is no known way to avoid the hearing loss while still getting the tumor-reducing effect. The hearing loss effect *is* dose-dependent. Armed with this information, I insisted what my oncologist reduce the dose of this drug, and after discussion of the tradoffs, we reduced the dose by 15% for the second and third cycles of chemotherapy.

My hearing recovered somewhat toward the end of the first cycle. Each cycle consisted of five days of Cisplatin and two other drugs, followed by two weeks of one-day-per-week of just one of the drugs (not Cisplatin). So I got Cicplatin for five days, then was off of it for two weeks – one cycle. The loss was somewhat less during the second cycle, but also less recovery, and similarly for the third cycle.

At this point I have what is considered to be a permanent high-frequency hearing loss, accompanied (as expected) by mild ringing (tinitus). It apparently is the price I must pay for being cured of my tumor. I am angry about the loss, but have no target for my anger.

Chemo ended in mid April. During treatment I went through a spell of peripheral neuropathy- numbness in my hands and feet, another known side effect of Cicplatin. The numbness lessened over time, and shortly after chemo ended, I had some residual numbness in my feet but none in my hands. However, in the last two weeks, the numbness has worsened in my feet and has returned to my hands. My oncologist is at a loss to explain why the neuropathy should suddenly worsen weeks after I stopped receiving the drug that supposedly caused it. So I will be continuing my own research since I am not (so far) getting satisfactory answers from my treatment provider.

That’s the story so far. My tumor has gotten substantially smaller, almost to the vanishing point (according to PET scans), but I am not yet officially in remission. The numbness is not painful, but is quite annoying, and it’s worrisome because it shouldn’t be getting worse now. (P.S., private correspondence, 7/31/08).

Paul S. is doing well. As an update he said:

My health is good now. As of the last CT scan in January, there was nothing left of the tumor but scar tissue. I have another scan a week from now as a precaution.

My hearing may have improved slightly – the tinnitus is less, and I don’t get the distortion with loud sounds that I was getting. As for frequency response, well, at my age, there is going to be some high-frequency loss anyway. I know there is still a reduction in high frequencies, but I can’t say for sure at this point whether it is age or chemo. (P.S., private correspondence, 7/6/09).

I told Paul I hope he wasn’t offended that I called him gaunt and he said, “I’m sure I did look ‘gaunt’ when you saw me then – I certainly FELT gaunt.” One so often struggles with what is the right thing to say or how to hide the surprise, or even shock, one feels when seeing someone who looks very different than the last time you saw him or her.

July 1, 2009 at 5:49 pm 9 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

Atypical Patients Fall Through the Cracks

As hard as it is to be sick, it is harder when you are an atypical patient. An atypical patient is someone who has a disease and does not come from the population of people who typically get that disease. An example is the former US Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Brooke, who, in 2003, “was diagnosed with breast cancer and worked to raise awareness that the disease also affects men.” (This was just in the news because Barbara Walters revealed on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” that they were more than just friends.) Other examples are young women with heart disease and teenage boys with anorexia.

Atypical Patients Struggle to Find Information and Support Online

When someone is concerned about a disease, the internet is an easy place to turn for information and support. In fact, 80% of people in the US who use the Internet search for health information for themselves or a loved one.

Online information and support are generally targeted to the typical patient. While many people don’t know what to search for or what to call a disease, these difficulties are compounded for an atypical patient whose search results may not be relevant. A friend of mine asked me to help her find an online health community for a friend diagnosed with apraxia. Most of the sites I found supported the needs of parents whose children have apraxia. Finally, I asked a speech therapist, who suggested looking at stroke sites, since apraxia in adults often results from a stroke. Even with a diagnosis, it was hard to find relevant information and support.

One of my students last fall, Samantha Moland, designed an online health community for young women with osteoporosis and osteopenia, diseases that typically strike older women. Samantha believed that a young woman concerned about her bone density or diagnosed with osteoporosis needs information targeted to, support from, and a site designed for people her age.

Patients – and Doctors – Are Less Likely to Know Risks and Symptoms

People are notoriously bad about following medical advice about self-exams and healthy behaviors. When the warning signs of a disease are publicized, it is only the symptoms experienced by typical patients and, furthermore, the publicity is targeted to that population.

Atypical patients are less likely to know that they are at risk or how to detect a disease; thus men rarely perform breast self-exams. Sen. Brooke ignored early warning signs and “assumed the discomfort was simply his aging body’s way of slowing him down.” When his wife noticed a lump, he mentioned it to his doctor and ended up having a double mastectomy. Because of his own experience, he has worked to encourage doctors to perform breast exams on men and to encourage men to perform self-exams. Furthermore the symptoms of some diseases can be different in an atypical population, such as those of a woman experiencing a heart attack.

It is not just patients who lack awareness of risks and symptoms, but doctors as well. Furthermore, treatment for an atypical population can be more difficult since medications are less likely to have been tested on this population.

The Stigma of Disease Is Greater

Finally, an atypical patient may feel more of a stigma, or perceived stigma. Sen. Brooke, a private man, had trouble disclosing the disease even to his children initially. When an atypical patient discloses a diagnosis, the reaction is likely to be shock or disbelief, thus perpetuating the silence about these diseases.

Health Sites Need to Meet the Needs of Atypical Patients

Most health sites are designed for the populations who typically get that disease. It is important to design for these atypical patients as well in order to better meet their needs and to increase general awareness. In some cases, targeted sites are necessary since the information and support needs, diagnosis, and treatment of an atypical patient are so different from those of the populations more commonly afflicted.

Advancing from Atypical to Typical – The Name of a Disease and the Name of this Category of Disease

If a disease starts to become more common in a specific demographic, it gets its own name as well as greater recognition, such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Although the symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease in older patients, the patient’s age may impact both treatment and family support needs. Male menopause is a very different type of example, since it refers more to a collection of symptoms than a disease.

I thought there might be a term for diseases that strike an atypical population. Every term I tried had a different meaning, such as outlier or differential. Is there an accurate description in medical or lay terminology for this category of diseases?

May 5, 2008 at 1:30 am 2 comments

The Democratization of Medical Knowledge

Marcus Welby, MD is an anachronism. The family doctor who pays house calls no longer exists except for some anachronists or doctors working in a few specific situations. The show, which ran from 1969-1976, predates the web. Hence Marcus Welby and his assistant probably got most of their medical updates from their monthly JAMA.

The amount of medical knowledge that exists and the amount that medical professionals need to know is constantly growing. Medical literature doubles every 19 years and, for AIDs, every 22 months, according to Tonya Hongsermeier, MD.

How can anyone possibly stay current? This is especially important because of the criticality of the information, not just the amount. As Tonya points out, doctors can be aided by tools that assist them, for example, alerting them to possible negative interactions between medications and other medical risks. Initiatives to codify knowledge and increase patient safety are taking place at Partners Healthcare.

Patients, who had limited access to medical knowledge in Marcus Welby’s days, now have a wealth of information available online – in fact, can access most of what physicians read. However, patients generally lack the basic knowledge and frameworks to understand and make sense of this abundance of readily accessible knowledge and, even more importantly, how to apply it. This is primarily due to lack of medical training and poor health literacy.

This democratization of medical knowledge, according to Larry Prusak, is a double-edged sword. Doctors struggle to stay on top of advances and, at the same time, patients increasingly try to acquire medical knowledge about their own or their loved one’s health. The disconnect between patients and doctors can be attributed in part to this democratization, which has changed the relationships between patients and their providers. The notion of empowered patients is one few could argue with; however an important component of expertise is knowing what you don’t know, knowing what to ignore, and knowing what is important. “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 many patients, understandably, lack that expertise as well as the necessary detachment. In fact, even doctors don’t treat themselves.

Not to digress, but I wrote about health and media recently and was interested that Marcus Welby, MD had an episode that focused on the diagnoses of breast cancer in two women, aired when “the wives of two public political figures” had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “The most motivational moment of this episode is James Brolin’s emerging from character to talk about diagnostic and early-detection tools for breast cancer. Such is the hallmark of television that [it] is not only entertaining but informative.” (This also goes to show the amazing information you can find on the internet when you aren’t even looking for it.)

April 16, 2008 at 12:08 am 6 comments

Case Study: Reviewing the Cancer Survivor’s Network

Jeff Johnson told me about his experiences doing a usability review of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivor Network. I was interested in his process and the impact of his findings because design and usability are arguably more important in a health site than any other type of site because of health literacy. Most interestingly to me is that cancer survivors were not involved in the design or evaluation process by the design firm even after Jeff’s recommendation. Jeff wrote a description of the process and the impact of his findings:

In mid-2002, a web-design firm (NewSof Group) contacted my usability consulting firm (UI Wizards). They developed and maintain the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivor Network (CSN), a website supporting cancer survivors, cancer patients, and their caretakers. In preparation for a planned site revision, NewSof Group wanted an independent usability review of the site.
Before beginning the review, I requested and received the following information from NewSof:
– The overall purpose or mission of the site,
– Important end-to-end tasks the site is intended to support,
– The parts of the site to be included in the review, and parts to be excluded,
– Known problems and concerns pertaining to the site’s usability.
The mission statement of the site was given as: “To be a vibrant community of real people supporting one another and sharing our personal experiences with cancer in our own way, with our own words. None of us need to make the cancer journey alone. We wish to help people find and connect with others like themselves and learn from the experience of others like themselves.”
Obviously, CSN users are not assumed to be technically skilled, so the site has to avoid using technical jargon and exposing technical concepts.
The parts of the site to be reviewed included all of its main sections, e.g., About, Calendar & Announcements, Expressions Gallery, CSN Email, Member Web Pages, Resource Library, Sign-In & Register, Comments, Help. The primary tasks to cover in the review were those supported by the included sections. Accessing all important areas of the site required me to register as a site-member. Aspects of the site excluded from the review were links to the American Cancer Society’s main site, the Spanish or Chinese pages, and details of member-posted content.
Previously known usability issues in the site included:
– Search
– Chat
– CSN email
– Clarifying data-sharing restrictions mandated by ACS policy and medical privacy laws.
As I was reviewing the site, I found I had questions and needed clarification concerning its function, the designers’ intent, and implementation constraints. I emailed batches of questions to my contact at NewSof by email, who either answered them immediately or forwarded them to developers who answered them.
To provide quick feedback so the developers could begin work revising the site, I compiled a preliminary list of usability problems and recommendations and sent it to NewSof as a simple email message. I then refined the preliminary report to provide a more comprehensive, categorized and prioritized list of problems and more complete recommendations. The 36-page report documented 181 potential usability problems, some supported by screen images, and most with recommended remedies. Many reported problems concerned overly wordy and unclear instructions, for which my recommended improvements were rewritten and shortened text. Other problems concerned insufficient navigation cues, inconsistent placement of Search boxes, difficult-to-learn functions, overly tedious operation of some common functions, unclear link labels, and wasted page-space.
I submitted the report to NewSof, and after a few days they pronounced it “just what we needed” and declared the consulting engagement concluded. As a follow-up, I recommended that NewSof consider hiring a usability consultant who actually is a cancer patient or survivor. I knew two who were willing to have me refer NewSof to them. I don’t know if NewSof ever contacted them.
Since I was still a registered CSN member (and still am), I occasionally have checked to see which of my recommendations they implemented. The short answer is: some, but not all. They reduced the volume of verbiage significantly, in some cases using my recommended rewording and in others devising their own. They ignored other recommendations such as conserving page- space.

January 28, 2008 at 1:49 am 1 comment


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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