Cyber Rx

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.

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