Big companies still believe the key to success on the Web is to make it all about shopping and fun. No wonder they’re losing money. It turns out a major reason people go online is pain. According to surveys, millions are using the Web to research their infirmities and diseases. Bread and circuses still abound, but they’re competing for clicks with an even older human yearning for cures.
Though the dot-com crash squelched a lot of the hype about the Web, its emergence as a health care oracle is one quiet way it truly has altered modern life. The change is obvious in the exam room, where patients now show up better informed about what’s ailing them. They’re also more likely to know what their treatment options are, and what they really cost—whether in dollars or potential suffering. Today, only veterinarians know the luxury of working with patients who can’t talk back.
Many sites have opened to meet the demand for health information. The Mayo Clinic site (www.MayoClinic.com) is one example. Gary Schwitzer, the site’s former
editor-in-chief and now an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, continues to work with the Mayo on designing online “health decision guides,” including one for women with early-stage breast cancer. As Schwitzer notes, people getting bad news about their health are often too shocked in the doctor’s office to understand the choices they suddenly face. Such online guides can lead you through the various treatment options in a rational way.
But big virtual clinics are not the only portals of choice. A Pew survey on Internet use found that most “health seekers” begin at a search engine, instantly assembling a virtual medical symposium tailored to their private afflictions. Users then browse through the myriad therapies touted behind the links. Mainstream medical doctrine sits side by side with alternative opinions and first-person testimonials.
Concerns about reliability and privacy are often heard. Another problem can be summed up by the words above the gate to hell in Dante’s Inferno: All who enter here, abandon hope. You may return ashen-faced from the catacombs of cyberspace, having stumbled onto the hard facts about what you’ve got. Some believe the mysterious role of hope in healing can be damaged in this way, along with the healer’s ability to nurture it. Not everyone wants the bad news first, and some never want it.
The Web is also leading to new forms of health-care activism, especially regarding environmental illnesses. Barring a Draconian clampdown, this movement will grow as it melds the computer’s networking capacity with its power to crunch health statistics. New kinds of organizing could arise—like “wind rose” coalitions, named after the flower-like diagrams that are formed by charting the wind patterns at a given location—say, a refinery or a power plant. Information system maps made from correlating this data with local health statistics could document spikes in illness tied to chemical exposure. As grassroots public health campaigns become digitally agile, concepts like environmental racism will be translated into the language of fact in which our era speaks.
The standard way to portray consumers in cyberspace is to show them flying, lighter than air. In fact, we’re as likely to stagger into the Web, as if on a pilgrimage to the healing grotto at Lourdes. It’s another quiet lesson of the Web to date. In cyberspace or outer space, we’re creatures of the flesh. Try as we might, there’s no such thing as leaving the meat behind.
Jeremiah Creedon is senior editor of Utne.