Guest post: The Internet enables new relationships

By Brad Dodge on May 21st, 2009

Susan Carr, editor and associate publisher of Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare, takes some time to describe the new, active, public role she now plays with readers.

It’s no longer possible to sit quietly on the sidelines.

My role as editor of a magazine comprised of articles written by experts is consistent with my natural inclination to work quietly behind the scenes. I write a brief editorial for each of our bimonthly issues and speak occasionally at conferences, but I spend most of my time shining a light on the work of others. That is changing. Any self-respecting newspaper or magazine—including mine—now offers interactive digital formats, social media and blogs with commenting. I have a new, active, public role to play with our readers, and I hope they will reciprocate by using the interactive tools we provide and become more invested in the publication. If we’re successful, we’ll develop a sense of community among readers who share their ideas online.

These are big changes for me and my colleagues at Lionheart Publishing, but I sense they represent only a modest example of a much larger trend. There are many examples of active participation replacing passive roles, enabled by the use of new tools and access to information through the Internet. Some institutions and professions are experiencing significant disruption of traditional roles. I attended two events recently that provide some examples.

In April, I attended the “Health 2.0 Meets Ix” conference in Boston, which focused on the use of online search and tools (Health 2.0) and supplying patients with timely and appropriate healthcare information (IX or Information Therapy). In the central conference hall, large screens displayed Twitter messages from the audience in real time during presentations. It sounds rude, but I’m not aware anyone was offended. The audience was arguably more engaged than in conferences where power naps are common following lunch. I didn’t see any inappropriate remarks. Had there been any, they would have been fairly easy to attribute and, I doubt would have been tolerated for long in this feisty but respectful group. In Twitter and blog reporting that occurred after the conference, there was consensus that the unofficial, overriding theme of the event was Participatory Medicine. The definition of that term is still evolving, but it generally refers to patients taking a more active role regarding their medical records, research and decision-making. The Internet equips patients with information and support as they attempt to forge new kinds of relationships with their physicians. Although the connections between readers and magazines is trivial compared to the patient-physician relationship, I see similarities in the shift of power and control, as well as related use of online tools: social networking, information exchange and search.

Another example of this new wave of participation is a type kind of conference called a BarCamp or, in the case of one I attended the day before “Health 2.0 Meets Ix,” a HealthCamp. It seems appropriate to turn to Wikipedia for a definition:

BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants. The first BarCamps focused on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats. The format has also been used for a variety of other topics, including public transit, healthcare, and political organizing.

Since August 2005, BarCamps have been held in more than 350 cities throughout the world.

More than 100 people registered for HealthCamp Boston in April. Most but not all of us also attended Health 2.0/Ix the following day. For most, this was our first HealthCamp experience. A handful of volunteer organizers and a few significant corporate partners provided a comfortable facility, ample food, and just enough structure to ensure that the day would run smoothly. The workshop had no scheduled agenda or speakers. We spent the first hour talking, drinking coffee, and milling around in front of a grid representing hours in the day, which was mounted on on the wall. Gradually individuals came forward to fill in the grid with pieces of paper on which they had written topics they were willing to explore as leaders of groups. Some had come with prepared presentations, but most sessions were spontaneous and unscripted. All featured lively debate and conversation. I was in a room where two sessions had claimed the same time slot. One leader introduced his topic and started a conversation in workshop style. When discussion headed in a direction related to the second leader’s topic, the first leader checked with everyone and gracefully handed off responsibility for leading the discussion. There’s an appealing efficiency to the user-generated format.

I attend numerous healthcare conferences each year and enjoy them, although I often wish there were more opportunity to hear from people in the audience. HealthCamp Boston may have really spoiled me. I intend to participate more actively and will watch for evidence that the participatory model is influencing traditional approaches to conferences and other things. In the spirit of HealthCamp, Participatory Medicine, and PSQH’s new Web site, despite my natural reticence, I won’t just be watching from the sidelines.