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Last week, I attended part of the ExL Digital Pharma conference in Princeton, New Jersey, where I spoke and had a fun and lively discussion with John Mack.

Thanks to the unpredictable nature of my day job, though, I wasn't able to catch much of the conference -- which involved a lot of discussion around how new social media technologies and approaches can be used in healthcare.

But one of the speakers that I did catch -- Dr. Kenneth Youner -- reminded me of what a powerful tool the web can be for people trying to manage their health.

Dr. Youner told of how he was diagnosed with a cancer that -- although he was a physician -- he knew little about. Turning to the web, he found a wealth of information that not only helped him learn more about the disease and various treatment options but also helped him connect with other cancer patients and survivors. The wealth of information available on the web enabled him to take an active role in his care and treatment and helped him feel that he wasn't alone.

I don't have the exact words, but he basically said that:

The internet probably saved my life.

My brother had a similar experience several years ago when his son -- then just a few years old -- was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer. Turning to the web, he found other families that were struggling with the same, rare disease -- and eventually learned of some of the few specialists in this country who were familiar with it. Connecting with other couples struggling with the same issues, they too learned how to cope.

At last week's conference -- and at the Health 2.0 event in San Francisco last month -- there was a lot of talk about the projects and technologies that promise to make a difference to health care.

But it was Dr. Youner's remarks that really hit home with me -- because they provided a powerful illustration of the real impact these new social networking tools could have to health care -- by empowering people. They promise to give us a way to take charge of managing our health, to learn about new treatment options and to engage and share experiences. These connections will help aide an ongoing shift away from being passive, couch potato-like "consumers" who accept what they are told to having the knowledge that helps them question, argue and reason to take charge.

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