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Online Medical Advice Goes Social

A new website seeks to bring the power of social networking to health support groups.
June 16, 2008

Trusera, a new social-networking website centered on health, officially launched today. The site, which features online communities and personalized health information, allows members to endorse one another’s contributions, as a way to identify reliable sources of information.

Precise advice: Trusera’s keyword-based search engine lets site members find user-generated content on a wide range of health topics.

In the past few months, high-profile sites like Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault, which allow patients to collect and share digital copies of their health records, have drawn a lot of attention.

But Trusera is doing something different. Rather than deal with health records or data, it focuses on social networking and storytelling, hoping to foster communities in which users can learn from one another’s experiences and seek out knowledgeable advice.

“ ‘The power of been there’ ”–the site’s motto–“is a real rallying cry for us,” says founder Keith Schorsch, a former senior executive at Amazon. “Everyone has a health story. What we want to do is combine the power of those stories in an individual, and also collectively powerful, way.”

In that respect, Trusera resembles a number of other innovative new health sites on the Web. PatientsLikeMe, a site launched in 2006, allows chronic-disease sufferers to share stories and health data, with one another and with medical researchers. DailyStrength, also launched in 2006, is a central hub for hundreds of health support groups. And, which went online last year, offers discussion groups and information about elder care.

In contrast to most other “consumer-to-consumer” sites, Trusera doesn’t seek to organize its users according to the health conditions they have in common. While users can look up information on specific diseases in Trusera’s keyword-based search engine, Schorsch says that the idea is to connect health consumers with one another based on not just common diagnoses but also a variety of common interests related to health. The site, which has been in beta testing since December, is free to users and collects revenue from advertising.

Like just about everything else on the Web, online health information suffers from a signal-to-noise problem. There are vast, deep reservoirs of health expertise on the Web, buried in health discussion forums and personal blogs, but to find them, consumers often have to wade through an ocean of irrelevant–and even dangerously wrong–information.

At the same time, more Americans than ever are going online for a second opinion–or even a first one. A January 2008 report by iCrossing, a market research firm, found that more Americans had gotten health information off the Internet in the past year than from their doctors. And that information is coming not just from health-information portals, government agencies, and other “official” channels, but also from consumers, in the form of blogs, support groups, and other informal networks of fellow disease sufferers.

To help identify trustworthy health information, Trusera’s interface lets users give “karma points” and “popularity points” to one another and to one another’s posts.

Schorsch had the idea for Trusera after contracting Lyme disease on a trip to the East Coast in 2004. For three months, he went from doctor to doctor in Seattle, undiagnosed, his health deteriorating rapidly in a welter of confusing symptoms, until an East Coast friend finally suggested that he get tested for Lyme. Along the way, Schorsch found that his most trusted sources of health information weren’t always doctors: they were often people who had been through similar health crises and had sage advice to share.

For the most part, the people contributing to Trusera are ordinary citizens, many of them struggling with chronic disease. For instance, “Pickel,” the mother of a developmentally disabled five-year-old, writes candidly on Trusera about a range of issues, from a post about her son’s experience on the drug Risperdal to an explanation of tax benefits for parents of special-needs children. It may seem dubious to be getting medical advice from someone you know only as Pickel, but that’s where the site’s content-ranking system comes in. Trusera is built around the idea that its members earn credibility with one another. Among the new features unrolled with today’s official launch are functions that allow members to give “popularity points” to useful posts and trusted fellow members.

“Humans are storytelling machines. It’s one thing to ask for charted data and patient health records; it’s another to ask for experiences. We’re focusing on the latter,” says Schorsch. “There’s incredible power in analyzing and indexing the unstructured info that people contribute.”

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