Last week I heard uber marketer Seth Godin speak about the power of fear. Fear is one of the strongest human emotions, based in the core of our brain–the “lizard brain” that evolved prior to our higher order thinking skills. Fear served us well throughout most of ancient history (stay away from the tiger!)–but it’s not always productive in modern day society.
Consumer fears about health information technology (health IT) privacy are a case in point. Surveys show that more than half of consumers voice fears which are, (in my opinion) appropriate, to an extent: risks such as discrimination are real, and public concerns should hold policymakers, vendors, and providers to the highest standard of privacy protection.
The real problem is fear mongering. Debroah Peel, founder of Patient Privacy Rights, has put herself and her organization on the map with sensationalism. As she said in a KTVU report earlier this month: “Anything that’s in there, any information that’s in there, can and will be used against you in the future. It’s very important to know that in the electronic health world…” and, “This is a nightmare. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before in medicine.”
Extremist statements like this are usually misleading and often just plain wrong.. But a response that focuses on the logical and rational alone doesn’t cut it. In March Peel wrote an opinion for the Wall Street Journal online called “Our Medical Records Aren’t Secure.”
It got 179 comments. A measured rebuttal by Mary Grealy, President of the Healthcare Leadership Council, got only 4.
On this blog, Matthew Holt has blasted Peel, calling her illogical and a “nutjob.” Peel and those who make similar arguments against health IT are not just “nutty,” but dangerous because they have found a way to tap deep into the human psyche. Even highly informed health IT professionals I know have been taken in by her siren song.
The struggle to control public perception will grow more intense as health IT becomes more mainstream via implementation of HITECH. It’s important to get the infrastructure, the policy, and the MESSAGING right if the public is going to participate.
Fortunately those of us who believe in the immense value of health IT can use emotion to sway people, too. If it’s fear you’re after, we hardly lack material:
– How about being given a drug you are dangerously allergic to?
– How about receiving a radical misdiagnosis—and the treatment to match?
– How about enduring prolonged, unnecessary pain?
– What abut the cures not found, or contagions not contained?
– And how do you feel about you or your loved one dying because of an avoidable medical error… as 98,000 people do in this country every year?
But we need not limit ourselves to fear, the lowest common denominator. We can also counter unproductive exaggeration with more holistic, moving stories. The importance of real patient stories was underscored by artist Regina Holliday and doctor Ted Eytan at a Health 2.0 meeting last week in Washington DC. As Holliday said, we need to “put a face” on healthcare, which she does through her paintings.
While the faces of plenty of patients in the broken health system of today reflect fear, pain, and missed opportunities, there are also more positive stories, like that of e-Patient Dave, who worked with information and a team of caregivers to save his own life. You can read his story in his new book, Laugh, Sing, and Eat Like a Pig.
Stories and the emotions they tap into are powerful tools—they are necessary to help the general public and even those who work in the healthcare system make sense of it and envision something better. Let’s harness their power to bring about positive change rather than freezing the status quo.
Lygeia Ricciardi is the founder of Clear Voice Consulting (www.clear-voice.com) and part of the leadership team of Clinovations (www.clinovations.com) She specializes in strategy, policy and implementation of health IT–with a passionate focus on the consumer. Fol