Posts tagged ‘wisdom of crowds’

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.

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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

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

Would Agatha Christie Write a Blog if She Were Still Alive?

George F. Colony, CEO of Forrester Research, wrote in his blog about the process of using a blog to hone and get feedback on ideas, which he called “Social Sigma” (and I commented sounded too close to “Social Stigma”). I loved his notion of using feedback to perfect something, be it an idea or a product.

My favorite writer, Agatha Christie, wrote a few short stories that seemed to be the basis, with modifications, for novels. Thinking about that made me wonder if Agatha Christie would blog if she were alive today. If so, what would she say? Would she use the wisdom of crowds to solicit or get feedback on her ideas?

February 7, 2008 at 8:14 am 4 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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