The California HealthCare Foundation published a report the other day entitled The Wisdom of Patients: Health Care Meets Online Social Media (PDF) which is a nice overview of the current state of Health 2.0. The report is four chapters long: Social Networks Come to Health, What is Health 2.0?, The Business of Social Networks and Health, and What’s Next for Social Networks and Health? More inside…

The author, Jane Sarasohn Kahn, reviews the multitude of reports and survey data that have been published about what consumers are doing online in regards to their health. The first chapter is just a brief overview of what is social networking, the backbone of Web 2.0.

The second chapter seeks to help us define Health 2.0 and focuses on the concept of the “power of collective wisdom.” Repeating James Surowiecki’s contention that crowds often may be smarter than individuals, the author suggests this is the underlying power of Health 2.0 — all of our minds put together work better than any one of us. Perhaps because professionals most fear misinformation being exchanged on social support groups, this is the focus of those who examine such groups.

Both authors however miss perhaps the most powerful aspect of all — the emotional and psychological support that people receive when engaged in a social, group environment. When dealing with life-threatening illness or disease, such psychological components can often be just as important as the information itself. Sadly, as is so often the case when people start throwing around terms like “Health 2.0” and talking about the “collective wisdom of crowds,” the psychological and emotional support components of these social groups isn’t even mentioned in the report.

Chapter two also discusses “lessons learned” about the convergence of health information and technology. The first lesson is about privacy concerns of consumers, but only mentions in passing that privacy and social networking are virtually incompatible with one another. Many social networks in health don’t restrict search engines from indexing their content, so a simple search on anyone’s user name means I can conduct a pretty thorough health history search on that person. Consumers aren’t even always aware of this trail of health breadcrumbs they’re leaving around the Internet and are surprised when they learn it’s been connected to their real life identity.

Other lessons learned including the fact that this remains a legal gray area for organizations to become directly involved in (in terms of liability concerns), and return on investment remains hazy at best (even huge mainstream social networks like Facebook and Myspace have yet to find significant ways to monetize their businesses). The report also notes that health insurers and doctors’ organizations may see little use or benefit by encouraging patients to talk with one another — it will only undermine their own authority. Indeed, this is usually one of the concerns of most doctors who hear about these networks, along with the concern about misinformation being spread by such groups.

E-patients want to learn to become better informed about their choices, and to an existing healthcare business or professional, that could be dangerous. Information is power, as they say, and traditionally information about how healthcare works in the U.S. has been cloaked in secrecy — How much does this test cost? Why aren’t you ordering this test? Why did you recommend this procedure over another? Health 2.0 networks seek to open up the health industry and help consumers get real answers to questions such as these.

Chapter three is a brief 2 1/2 page dive into the business of Health 2.0 sites and starts with advertising. Advertising and sponsorships easily remain the primary revenue drivers for all health websites, including those such as WebMD and RevolutionHealth. Even patient bloggers and other Health 2.0-oriented websites (such as Diabetes Mine) support advertising, because it helps pay the bills in a way that no other model has proven to work. Other business models, such as information aggregation and private labeling (which is really just organization-specific advertising that sponsors a specific service) mentioned in the report, are far less proven and are embraced by only for a handful of companies in this space. Time will tell whether any business model that doesn’t have advertising or sponsorships at its core will be successful long-term.

The final chapter in the report breaks out the usual crystal ball to try and foretell what is going to “stick” with consumers in Health 2.0 in the future. Health ratings is the first bet, which is a pretty safe bet given the dozen or so websites and organizations that already offer such ratings. Health ratings systems have been available now for over 5 years, so there’s already a pretty good track record for them for things like medications and treatments. The real question will be to see whether ratings for doctors and hospitals will be as successful.

Another prediction is that doctors and patients will be peers in the same social network. MedHelp.org has such a platform, and it’ll be interesting to see how it will grow in upcoming years. A related prediction is that social platforms will be “knitted together” to offer more collaborative opportunities amongst existing social networks.

Collaborations may produce unlikely combinations that, together, may help to disrupt existing models of healthcare. This is certainly possible, as it has been hypothesized in the past that such combinations could be game-changing. But as with the dot.com boom, we have plenty of examples of where such combinations never amounted to much in the claimed synergies (most famously, Time Warner and AOL). Such partnerships often seem more hype than reality. The report notes that GE is planning to leverage multiple media outlets in this manner, yet it seems like this is just another example of Big Corporation driven healthcare and bears little resemblance to what most people think of when they think of Health 2.0.

The last few predictions, about entirely new health companies created just to take advantage of the Health 2.0 trend, mobile phone possibilities, and new patient opinion leaders, are safe bets, but not anything really visionary. Startups are common online to take advantage of any emerging trend, virtually every business plan includes a mobile component, and patients have been opinion leaders in certain areas for some time now.

Finally, the implication in “The New patient Opinion Leader” section that old-style online virtual support groups didn’t result in “practical solutions to chronic health challenges” really seems to be off the mark — indeed, such support groups remain the most popular and widely used forms of communication amongst patients online today. The Internet is a big place and can support all styles of groups — those looking for something new and more socially-oriented, and those who feel comfortable with their existing social networks using more old-style tools (such as forums or mailing lists).

If you’re interested in an update on the Health 2.0 space, the 17 page report is an easy, quick read and has a few insights worth your time. It is probably a report better read by people who have little information about this space, and need to get a good, short overview of it — like a manager, director or VP who thinks their company or organization needs to know more about Health 2.0 in order to leverage it or address it in some manner.

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