When I grew up, the primary sources of health information for most of us were our physicians or our friends and family. But over the past decade the resources we use and rely on for health information, and how we use it, have radically changed. With the ubiquitous availability of the Internet, we're now taking on the role of gathering and assessing this information ourselves, often before we visit or return to our doctors. To find health information, most of us turn to search engines or health sites -- whether to answer questions about a new physical discomfort, a known ailment or about a health matter facing a child or other person we care.
The way we find health information has problems
But when we look for health information online, we face significant challenges. The amount of health information we find is vast, and what we find is impersonal and often irrelevant. Also, in most cases, it's provided by sources whose trustworthiness cannot be easily validated.
When we search for answers to health questions, we receive vast amounts of information -- page after page of search results, countless posts on unstructured forums, opinions of people who for the most part are not trained medical professionals or lengthy articles that go on and on about every possible complication and treatment related to a health topic. What we find often leaves us more confused than when we started, uncertain as to what's relevant and what to trust.
On the rare occasion that we find something that may be useful, we face another problem.
Today, health information online is organized around topics (like symptoms, conditions, and treatments) but not around what's most important: you. This means that entirely different people (for example: you, me, an average 25-year-old pregnant woman, a 65-year-old man with a chronic disease, an 8-year-old child with asthma and a healthy 42-year-old man) get the same results when they enter the same search, or look on the same health website. This makes little sense: If these very different individuals went to the same doctor, they'd get different answers to the same question. Imagine visiting your doctor and receiving health information before being asked any basic questions about yourself (your age, gender, health history, etc.). We'd never accept this kind of non-contextual information from our physicians, yet we need to make important health decisions every day based on what we find online -- even when what we find is not necessarily relevant for us.
The existing solutions for finding health information online are of little or no use to most of us. Research confirms this fact: Nearly 60 percent of adults report that the health information they find online is of no help at all, according to a 2010 Pew Internet Study.
Moreover, with all the great things that the Internet has brought for helping disseminate health information, there's one thing that I believe is highly problematic: Physicians, who used to be in the epicenter of the health conversation when I grew up, have become marginalized on most health sites, and the emphasis is put on encyclopedias, articles, blog posts and message boards where health information is shared among and by people with no formal health education or expertise. This reality of online health has caused a dangerous and justified erosion of trust.
How online health information is changing
Thankfully, the way we look for and find health information online, how useful it is to us and what we do with it are all about to change. The wealth of information to which we have access is finally being made useful, relevant and -- most important -- engaging, through new innovations and technologies.
We are in the midst of historic evolution. Today -- right now -- the consumer health industry is being radically redefined. We've reached a tipping point where the right mix of technology, innovation, motivation and need are converging to create an opportunity for real, radical and positive change for anyone who looks for health information online. This convergence is opening the door to a promising and exciting era in health, which I've coined as: "Interactive Health."
Interactive Health: Five factors that will forever change our relationship to health information
"Interactive Health" enables new ways of understanding and relating to our health by bringing together five primary elements to drive change: new apps and devices (including portable connected devices, like smart phones and tablets, and data collection devices); personalization (based on user-provided data); engagement (created by game dynamics and new user interfaces); the increased presence, leadership and participation of doctors online; and a vibrant social dialogue about health.
New Devices and Apps
Hundreds of thousands of smart phones and tablets are activated every day. The numbers are astonishing: More than 600,000 new devices running the Google Android operating system (mostly smart phones) and Apple iOS (including the iPhone and iPad) are activated every day. More than 30 million apps are downloaded each day. These go-anywhere devices and apps are like "computers on the go," providing instant access to information and services in new ways.
The ubiquity of cloud computing and new faster and cheaper ways to collect, store and process large amounts of data is enabling mass personalization for the first time. Data is being processed in exciting new ways to create personalization for users -- financial information, entertainment, and general purchases (from books to consumer goods) are being personalized with services like Amazon.com, mint.com, and Netflix. We're just beginning to see the potential of personalization in other areas of our daily lives.
Game Dynamics and Engagement
The gaming industry is now bigger than the film industry, and continues to grow. People of all ages are now engaging with games, and gaming elements, every day. As a result, interactive and game dynamics are now appearing in mobile and online applications and creating new types of engagement with information.
Doctors Coming Online
For years, physicians have been marginalized and visibly missing from the online conversation about health. They are now increasingly embracing social media and adopting new technologies and new ways of connecting with patients and patients and other physicians online. Physicians are engaging in new IT-based means of delivering care and sharing information, as well as new methods for sharing their expertise online.
The Social Conversion about Health
The online conversation about health, in social networks and beyond, is becoming increasingly vibrant. We're finally facing up to the unsustainable path of our existing system of care, and starting to use the online conversation to connect with experts and other individuals similar to us when it comes to health. This trend helps people remain more engaged with their health and explore new ways of improving their health and well being.
Why now is the right time
Today, health care costs in the U.S. have ballooned to almost $3 trillion per year. This enormous burden, which is threatening the viability of our entire economy, can be traced in large part to inefficiencies in the healthcare system and to a lack of engagement by consumers in their health, whether they are well or chronically ill.
But there's hope: Some of the best entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and physicians are finally looking for creative ways to engage people in their health and well being. They are bringing to health and health care the kind of personalization, socialization and engagement we've been used to receiving at Amazon, Facebook and Zynga to drive much-overdue change.
What's special about Interactive Health
Interactive Health is all about becoming healthier and happier through your everyday engagement with your health and well-being. It's about making health more than just the topic of periodic doctor visits or New Year's resolutions, and making it a part of your everyday life. When heath information becomes personal and based on real validated data and grounded in trustworthy expert knowledge, we are more likely to become engaged with it and make better long lasting informed decision, as well as have a long-lasting impact on our health and well-being.
The first way to increase health engagement is by personalizing it through data and information that's contextualized and actually about you. Today, new products are coming to market -- from electronic wireless scales (that collect weight and BMI information), to interactive watches that gather biometric measurements, to always-on pedometers that monitor our physical activity. All of these can help us collect and make use of personal data in new, individualized ways. Moreover, in the near future, even more sensors will be integrated into smart phones and other devices we use every day. Information that previously was rarely collected, and then only during doctors' visits (and even then we didn't have access to it), is now being made personal. In addition, with increased EMR adoption in hospitals and physician practices, we'll have better access to our own health information. Together, these trends, devices and apps will help us automatically collect, access, and monitor our personal health information in new ways.
The second way to increase our personal engagement with our health is to have a "personal health companion," a new, easy-to-use tool for making personalized health information and data easy to manage, analyze and understand in real-time. A personal health companion built on what we choose to share can help us make better choices about our health and well-being, and provide us access -- via an intuitive interface -- to trusted medical information and support networks that will create and sustain the motivation needed for lasting health engagement.
This is not vision of a distant future. The foundation for Interactive Health exists today -- in 2011 -- and its time is now. We have the technology, social trends, motivation and talent to bring these elements together and make Interactive Health a reality.
What Interactive Health means for you
Interactive Health is a powerful vision that is quickly becoming a reality. In the world of Interactive Health, a doctor's visit can start on a mobile device, progress to a real clinic and continue with instant access online. You can receive secure, tailored health information from a personal health companion that helps you make informed decisions before and in-between doctors visits. The new era of Interactive Health is an exciting world of possibility, and one where:
- Mobile and online applications for improving health are fast, simple and accessible, anytime and anywhere.
- Information is personalized and tools help you receive secure, tailored, relevant and actionable health information.
- There is 24/7, easy access to trusted physicians and their wisdom, online and offline.
- Interactive technologies connect you with relevant, experienced support groups to help you make informed decisions.
- Simple tools with game-like interactions make it fun to become and remain engaged in your health.
Interactive Health is not about "fixing" the broken health-care system or the problems of finding health information online. It's about engaging each of us (well or ill) in our health, well-being and in the process of care. Moreover, it's about empowering and inspiring physicians and health-care professionals to actively lead, participate and help us achieve better and more cost-effective care. Interactive Health is about making personalized health knowledge, supportive care and motivation available to you, anytime and anywhere, so that you can integrate this knowledge into your daily actions to live a longer, healthier, happier life.
Welcome to the new era of Interactive Health.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more