Monday, October 19, 2009

A Healthcare Answer For Some But Not All

The Internet Is Another Health Disparity That Must Be Addressed If you ask your friends, relatives and colleagues if they’ve used the Internet to find healthcare information, I’d be willing to bet the answer would be yes. There’s no question that the Internet is an ever more important healthcare tool. The ability to capture and consolidate information into electronic medical records; search and share health and wellness resources, and enhance communications between professionals and patients are among the many benefits of the web. It’s OK to cheer but just not too loudly.

The problem is that our friends, relatives and colleagues aren’t everyone – not by a long shot. According to Neilsen Online, there’s a whopping 277,636,000 Internet users in the U.S. The flip side of this seemingly good news is that it leaves about 30 million Americans disconnected from the world wide web and, thus, unable to access important healthcare tools and information.

The web is no panacea, of course. You may have read some of my previous articles where I pointed out the problems of web-based healthcare information. Because there’s so much junk science reported and repeated in cyberspace, it can be a case of information doing more harm than good. Still, there’s a growing list of important applications that will not be available to all who could benefit from them.

Take Keas, for example, the new company that boasts Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault as partners. Keas seeks to marry personal data and health information to produce personalized health plans for individuals. Delivered right to your desktop or smart phone might be diet and exercise advice, an explanation of lab results, different treatment options or reminders to take a medication.

During the healthcare reform debates, we heard repeatedly that a key to lowering costs is to have a healthier nation and that this goal will only be possible if individuals take more responsibility for their health. While we could achieve a lot if plain old common sense was applied more often, tools like those being developed by Keas could play an important role in both learning about and managing one’s health.

If experts are telling us that things like electronic medical records, on-line health information and personalized health plans are important to healthcare reform efforts and our own personal well being then we need to be thinking about two kinds of health disparities: insurance coverage and Internet access. Creative, cost-effective ways to distribute computers and expand broadband access must take on new urgency. The benefits would be manifold.

And, access should include more than the ability to go on-line. Access is meaningless if one can’t interpret what one has found. Even for those with Internet connections, there’s an enormous deficit in health literacy that threatens the public health, such as sensationalized claims that lead people to take potentially dangerous alternative medicines or parents to refuse vaccinations for their children other than for legitimate medical reasons. If there’s any hope in increasing coverage and quality while containing (or even lowering) costs, more attention must be placed on expanding access to and understanding of healthcare information.

Between blog posts, you can follow me on Twitter.


Margaret Polaneczky, MD (aka TBTAM) said...

Paul - Found you via Arthur. This is a great post - Everyone is talking about the costs of getting the docs online, but not the patients. Will tweet it.

You might be interested in reading my tour de force on healthcare. (or not - it's long...)


Peggy (Annette's friend)

Sara Latham said...

Paul - what a timely and relevant post! During my time in medical school I came across patients from all walks of life. Many patients I worked with were having difficulty making ends meet and therefore having personal access to the Internet would have seemed like a luxury. Much of the time I would print information out for them to take home as I knew accessing the web would be difficult or impossible for them. Thanks for shedding light on a topic that could easily be ignored.