Zombies and the Health Care Debate: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media

An unprecedented spike in the flu across the country heralded in the fall season. And fears of the H1N1 virus has hit home. Where I live, the superintendent of Traverse City Public Schools decreed that all schools close for the week and rumor has it that the mayor canceled Halloween (Turns out the Halloween-is-canceled bit was a joke by some radio djs, but several believed it). And mind you, this is all taking place against the backdrop of a heated debate in congress over health care and the left-leaning-must-be-a-commie-plot “public option.” Government conspiracies, global infectious diseases and a talking pig—this is starting to sound all too eerily familiar. Night of the Living Dead anyone (Charlotte’s Web edition)? Just because I like a good Zombie flick doesn’t mean I want to live in one.

Ok, so what do the swine flu, Zombies, health care and social media have in common? Well, if the Google Flu trends are signs of the coming apocalypse—then the answer is everything.

Dr. Zombie by Slightlynorth
Dr. Zombie by Slightlynorth

Consider this common scenario: A mother is concerned that her child may be sick. Symptoms include a stuffy nose, sore throat and general irritability (that last one is actually the mother’s symptom after a restless night and not enough coffee). So is it the dreaded swine flu, common cold or, worse yet, the H1Z1 Zombie Virus? Well, mom jumps online and goes straight to her favorite medical sites (bookmarked, of course). A recent survey found that 82 percent of mother’s go online in search of medical advice. And blogs and social networking sites are becoming increasingly more important as a place to find and share information, including health issues.

Bloggers compared symptoms of the common cold and the flu in terms she understood—she could easily relate her situation to the anecdotal blog posts. Links to trusted medical communities also verified her suspicions: junior had the common cold. There were none of the typical indicators of flu: fever, aches, nausea, etc. But should she and her family get the H1N1 vaccination, and if so, where and when will it be available in her community?

What if the local clinic sent out a tweet or blog update with information about the availability of the H1N1 vaccines in your community? In some places, this is a reality. Over 400 hospitals currently use social media, and close to 300 of these are on Twitter.

And it’s not just moms with sick kids going online for medical advice. A 2009 Pew Internet report on the Social Life of Health Information found that 56 percent of adults go online for health information. That’s equivalent to the number of germs on the tips of 47 pencils, each carrying a million germs (you do the math). Doctors, too, have their own social networking sites. Over 11,000 doctors are participating on Sermo.com, sharing insights and answering each others queries.

What’s more is that there are also services for storing and accessing our personal medical information online. Google Health is an example of a service that allows people to store and update health information online. It also allows settings to make the relevant information accessible to their doctors and pharmacists. Certain participating hospitals and pharmacies make it easy for individuals to upload and update their information in one place.

Can you imagine, doctors and patients sharing information to improve treatment and reduce complications from prescription side-effects?

So, as the health care debate looms and more Americans are losing their benefits as their jobs disappear, online access to medical resources may become increasingly important. It is also about the changing landscape of health care in our country. This is about building a better health care system. As with any relationship between multiple parties (you, doctors, insurance and drug companies), clear communication is the key. And social media enables real-time communication, stores of searchable information and community input—building blocks for transparency.

But the naysayers, and there are many, have fears worse than a Zombie virus destroying the fragile fabric that holds our society together.

Worse than Zombies? Worse than pre-existing conditions? That’s right.

Privacy, or rather, (fear of) the lack of it. And this is as legitimate of a concern when criminal minds and insurance companies are in the fray (at least Zombies aren’t known to steal medical records, just our brains—the ultimate hard drive).

So I was watching the news and saw hordes of people lining up at a local clinic for the H1N1 vaccine. If there was an epidemic going around, would you go to the one place where all the people with the contagious virus are hanging out? Think about it. The waiting room at the clinic is like a Petri dish of germs—the last place I’d be seen right before a Zombie outbreak. At least when you poke a friend on Facebook you have the protection of a firewall and anti-virus software.

But it got me thinking. How is fear driving our decisions when it comes to our health? What we don’t know, those monsters lurking in the dark shadows of our health insurance policies, may hurt us all in the end. Instead of Zombies, it may be the overly complicated and expensive health care system that destroys the fabric of our fragile society. Should we be afraid of a more simplified health care system that makes sense—for everyone?

[Note: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) had no official position on the Zombie virus at the time of this post. They did, however, refer to “Zombie behavior” as a negative side-effect from watching too much television.]

*Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog are purely the individual blogger’s opinions.