Clicking with the Networked Patient

By Jennifer J. Salopek

Rheingold HowardHoward Rheingold has been speaking and writing about how to learn, live, and thrive online since 1987, when he coined the term “virtual community.” Since then, he has become an expert on digital literacy, launched websites and online magazines, given a TED talk, spoken about digital journalism, and authored several books including his most recent, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Known for his colorful attire, rakish headgear, and painted shoes, Rheingold will deliver the opening keynote* tomorrow at Stanford Medicine X | ED on the era of the networked patient and the advantages and challenges that confront health care providers. He provided a preview of his talk during a telephone interview last week.

*To watch the keynote live Wednesday, September 23 at 8:30 AM Pacific time, click here.

Rheingold has been exploring the online world since 1985, when he became involved in the WELL, one of the largest and most well-established online discussion sites. When the son of a friend from the WELL was diagnosed with leukemia two years later, the friend turned to his online contacts to seek information and support, creating one of the world’s first virtual communities.

Now, millions of people with networked support and access to information online are networked patients. Those who take on more responsibility for their care are driving the movement to participatory medicine: “Patients are organizing their own communities, organizing clinical trials, even crowdsourcing diagnoses,” Rheingold says. “But these activities can create a chasm, with the health care provider standing on the other side. This is a chasm to be jumped.”

In his extensive writing about developing competencies in digital literacy, one of the five key skills Rheingold espouses is “crap detection.” It is even more necessary for the networked patient who, with his peers, is conducting 6.75 million online health searches per day.

“Peer support and sharing are deeply embedded in human sociology,” Rheingold says. “The question is, will the information be credible and good? The pitfall of the networked patient is the failure to detect bad information.” This can lead to another challenge: that of overconfident patients who feel they know more than they do—and more than you do.

Networked patients bring advantages to health care as well: the aforementioned responsibility, and providing a channel for health care providers to educate patients so they can be partners in their own care, and vice versa. “Physicians can connect with patients, not just with their charts, and can learn from large groups of patients who have the same disease or condition,” Rheingold says.

This is a transitional period in medical education, in which providers fall into one of three demographic groups: very experienced physicians, to whom the networked patient is a new and challenging—possibly even threatening—phenomenon; midcareer docs, who are struggling to put the demands together with the traditional medical education they received; and Millennials, who accept the networked patient as having always been around. No matter what their age or level of experience, however, health care providers can benefit from working with the networked patient.

“This is a new world in which technology doesn’t mean just new equipment,” Rheingold says. “It presents an unprecedented opportunity to see the intelligent, networked patient as a subject matter expert.”

Jennifer-1990-webJennifer J. Salopek is founding editor of Wing of Zock. She can be reached at, or follow her on Twitter @jsalopek.

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