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Revolutionary Talk

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There's a quiet revolution underway.

Late last month, I came across a WSJ article on the growing use of professional social networking sites that mentioned Sermo -- which connects 25,000 physicians who share observations and knowledge about different diseases or diagnoses. Pretty cool stuff. But it sounds like a kind of virtual grand rounds -- and isn't a huge stretch beyond more traditional medical education approaches.

What's really going to shake things up, however, is the use of social networking tools by lay people as they increasingly take charge of their own health needs. Through sites like OrganizedWisdom , Revolution Health and numerous disease-specific communities it is already happening. As the Economist points out in a recent article this trend not only reflects how more people have access to technology, but also that very natural, human desire to seek advice -- and perhaps comfort -- from others who have had similar experiences.

We've all reached out to a friend, family member or even a complete stranger to get help with some health issue - or simply to commiserate. By using social networking new tools, however, you don't have to rely just on the advice of Auntie Jayne or your neighbor down the block, but can tap into the many, many others who know first hand what it's like to live with epilepsy or arthritis or cancer or... whatever.

I know some naysayers have questioned the value of the information on such user-generated sites -- particularly if it isn't reviewed by a professional. But I'm optimistic about the possibilities. I think the following passage from the Economist puts it quite well:

Some observers expect even greater benefits from user-generated health sites in future. Patients who live with chronic diseases, such as epilepsy often know more about them than their doctors, contends Daniel Hoch, a professor at Harvard Medical School who helped to found BrainTalk [an online support group for neurology patients]. Many doctors, he says, "don't get the wisdom of crowds." But he thinks the combined knowledge of a crowd of patients would be far greater than his own. A wiki capturing the knowledge of, say 300 epileptics could be invaluable not only to others with epilepsy but to the medical professionals who care for them.

This "wisdom of crowds" could change doctor-patient relationships, medical training, education, product development and the way advocacy groups are formed. Yet by sharing ideas, discussing symptoms and outcomes and debating treatment options, physicians, patients, caregivers and even healthcare companies gain knowledge that could ultimately improve patient care.

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