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  Industry Trends:
Online Self-helpers Go Public with Personal Stories

Self-helpers' personal stories are emerging as an important new type of online health resource. Such stories can help give health information a human face. They can provide inspiration, encouragement, and support as well as useful information and links to other resources. Personal accounts can be a gathering point for self-helpers with similar interests and a starting point for those facing a new health problem. Here are five sites that use personal stories in interesting and useful ways:

This excellent AIDS site provides a selection of 92 personal stories by and about people with AIDS/HIV, collected from magazines, newsletters, Web pages, and other sources. In one narrative, runner Steve K. explains how he got beyond "preparing to die" by training for and running a marathon.

This vitamin retailer recently offered visitors a round-the-clock webcam peek into the living room, kitchen and office of a 29-year-old woman as she dieted and exercised her way toward a "health transformation" in time for her wedding. Visitors could foll ow Dani's daily routine, read her diary, send her encouragement and advice, discuss her experiences with others, and could use the site's "health planner" to develop their own health makeover. www.healthshop.com/webCAM/default.asp

When one of onhealth.com's copy editors was diagnosed with breast cancer last fall, senior editor Kathleen Donnelly saw an opportunity to do something unique. Jeanne had a mastectomy in October and started chemotherapy in November. In December, she began posting weekly journal entries describing her progress. "Jeanne and I came up with the diary idea together," Donnelly said. "We wanted to shed light on some of the "taboo" aspects of cancer, e.g., what's the 'chemo room' really like? And what's it like to go 'boob shopping'? We mapped out a 12-week plan, matching topics to the phases of Jeanne's treatment. But we knew that everything could change. And, of course, it did." Half-way through the project Jeanne became so depressed that Donnelly had to write the account for Week 7. The two women wrote Week 8's entry together--in Jeanne's room at the psychiatric unit at the University of Washington Medical Center. "We were incredibly lucky that Jeanne was not afraid to tell her readers, 'I'm depressed. I'm scared. And I've checked myself into the psych unit,'" Donelly said. "She was really willing to tell it like it was. That's what makes her diary so real." The site includes links to additional breast cancer information and a discussion group where readers can post messages for Jeanne and talk to each other. Jeanne checks in regularly to respond to messages.

Concert pianist Tina F. describes her experiences with panic attacks and explains how she learned to manage them with relaxation skills and meditation in her story, "Treating Panic Attacks with Calmness." Tina's story is one of a number of self-helpers' s tories that make up "A Day in My Life" at drkoop.com's interactive communities. Tina concludes her account by observing that "Sometimes we discover that what needs to be healed is not necessarily what we originally set out to heal." Other personal account s show self-helpers dealing with problems ranging from alcohol addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder to Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer. At drkoop.com's Fitness Center, a feature called "Four Get Fit" follows the successes and setbacks of fo ur self-helpers who are trying to shape up and lose weight. Community Producer Todd Woodward says such real-life stories can reduce community members' feelings of isolation and can help spark new discussions. Getting community members to prepare such pers onal accounts wasn't difficult, Woodward said. "We just let them know what we were looking for--and the stories came flooding in."

Published in The Ferguson Report, Number 3, May 1999


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Copyright © 1999-2003 Tom Ferguson, M.D. The Ferguson Report is a free e-mail newsletter published at unpredictable intervals for the friends and associates of Tom Ferguson. ISSN 1520-5487