Online Symptom Checker

How The Internet is Changing Responses to Illness

Guest Editorial

If you start experiencing new or odd health-related symptoms, where do you go first? For many people, especially those who are uninsured or under-insured, going to do the doctor isn’t always an option, so instead they turn to the Internet for answers.

The medical field is one that is constantly growing and changing, but for such an innovative industry, it’s one that also tends to be very set in some traditional ways. New innovations that threaten the status quo of older, more well-established companies often die before they can even be born, and while that’s great for the current pillars of the medical industry, it’s not often in the best interest of the patient.

Innovators find themselves facing multiple often-insurmountable obstacles when trying to introduce new products or practices into the medical industry. Like anything resistant to change, it’s causing the industry to begin to stagnate.

In cases such as these, as with so many other industries in the recent past, it’s going to take something utterly disruptive to turn the industry on its ear and get paths for new technologies opened again. What is disruptive innovation, and how is it affecting our response to illness?

What is Disruptive Innovation?

Disruptive innovations are those that come out of nowhere and are often overlooked, but can end up changing the entire foundation of the industry. Personal computers, for example, were written off by the big mainframe companies as underpowered and useless when they were introduced in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They simply didn’t have the same computing power that the mainframes did, so they couldn’t possibly compete, right?

Ask yourself this — do you have a mainframe uplink in your house or a personal computer?

This disruptive innovation changed the entire landscape of the computing industry by introducing something that, at the time, only appealed to a small portion of the market. Over the years, though, this idea of the personal computer evolved into an indispensable tool, and computing technologies have advanced by leaps and bounds since then.

At this point, many of us carry small high-powered computers in our pockets in the form of mobile phones, something that may not have even been possible without a few engineers stepping up to say “Hey, maybe we should make these computers smaller and more accessible.”

The medical industry is not immune to disruptive innovations, but it is often more resistant to change. In an effort to maintain the status quo, regulators will refuse to license new technologies, insurance companies refuse to pay for them, and hospitals won’t upgrade their current techniques in favor of better ideas.

Right now, a question is being asked — can disruptive innovation cure the healthcare industry? Would patients be better served by a move toward new technologies and more stand-alone specialized care?

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How are these changes in technology and the overall medical industry changing the way we seek medical care? The answer to that came with the introduction of the Internet. Sites such as Mayo Clinic and WebMD allow patients to enter their symptoms and generate a list of possible ailments based on the information entered. It sounds like a dream come true, right? Just fill out a couple of checkboxes and the Internet will tell you what’s wrong with you.

The growing cost of medical visits and the resistance to time- and money-saving innovations has caused many people to turn to these Internet-based diagnostic tools. When used properly, they can be extremely useful, giving patients an idea of what to ask their doctors about when they schedule an appointment. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem.

Many patients, especially those who don’t have immediate access to health care, will use these tools as a way to self-diagnose without ever actually consulting a medical professional. This can lead to small things being blown entirely out of proportion, such as someone with a sore throat using WebMD to come up with a cancer diagnosis.

On the other hand, utilizing an online diagnostic tool also can cause serious issues to be brushed off and ignored as unimportant, with dangerous or potentially fatal consequences.

How Do They Relate?

So what does the concept of disruptive innovation have to do with Internet based self-diagnosis? WebMD and similar sites are actually disruptive innovations in and of themselves.

Disruptive innovation can, over time, lead to the introduction of new and more affordable techniques and technologies, making medical care more affordable and accessible to all. This, in turn, will hopefully slow the trend of self-diagnosis and lead to more people seeking out professional medical care rather than trying to puzzle out what might be wrong with them.

All it takes is one inventor or innovator willing to be a little disruptive, and they can change the world.

Megan Nichols is a science writer who enjoys writing about healthcare, psychology and other scientific fields of study. To learn about health topics, check out her blog or follow her on twitter.

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