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Do you have an Avatar?

THCB Note: This post first appeared at The Disruptive Women in Health Care Blog. There’s lots more great posts. Check it out!

If you don’t have an avatar, you may want to seriously think about creating one. I
am. I’ll admit it, at first I was skeptical, but the more I see the
benefits of virtual worlds, the greater the value and potential I can
see for health care.

An Avatar, as Wikipedia notes, is “a computer user’s representation
of himself/herself or alter ego.” (Hmmm, wonder what Joe the Plumber’s
avatar might look like)…

Avatars are used in virtual worlds like Second Life and Whyville.

Second Life

Second Life is the most well-known virtual world with more than 13
million registered users. It is primarily a social environment with a
strong creative component, since any user is allowed to create content
within the world. This highly-modifiable environment makes Second Life
uniquely suited to educational campaigns. For example, a space could be
created to simulate the everyday difficulties that people with mobility
challenges (i.e., people in wheelchairs), cataracts, or
diabetes-related eye illnesses face to help educate those without these
conditions.

Whyville

Whyville is an educational virtual world geared towards preteens and
children (ages 8 to 15) whose goal is to engage its 3 million users
across a broad array of subject areas, including healthy living, art,
history, and social issues. One could imagine an opportunity for
multi-generational education by creating “DiabetesTown” within Whyville
that would educate users about the importance of proper diet and
exercise, regular vision screening, and what life is like for friends
and relatives with diabetes.

What do CIGNA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Partners HealthCare have in common?

They have all staked out real estate in virtual worlds such as
Second Life. Proponents are quick to point out that with today’s
exponential growth in chronic illness, finding tools to modify behavior
and encourage self-management is critical – and behavior changes
learned in virtual worlds have real world advantages.

As more and more people search for information online and become
more comfortable with new social networking tools, “health care” has a
phenomenal opportunity to reach thousands of people in interesting,
creative ways.

Back in August 2008, AIS Health Business Daily published a story entitled Presence in Virtual Worlds Could Help Health Plans Achieve Real-World Behavior Change. Examples that caught my attention included:

– Partners HealthCare, through a partnership with the Center for
Connected Health, is conducting a virtual clinical trial of a
relaxation program on its Second Life Island.

– CIGNA is exploring the use of virtual disease management programs.

– The CDC partnered with Whyville to promote flu vaccine awareness.
“During its first year on the site, the CDC virtually vaccinated 20,000
Whville residents. During its 2007-2008 campaign, 41,000 residents were
vaccinated. Because grandparents use Whyville to connect with their
grandchildren, the CDC was able to involve this important cohort in the
awareness campaign. Health plans could use a similar strategy for their
enrollees.”

Want to give it a test-drive? You’ll need an Avatar. Go here  and start creating a new you.

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