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Consumer Health Informatics

Consumer health informatics represents a recent and growing movement in health care. It seeks to empower consumers of health care through various methods of tailoring information to different socio-economic classes, education levels, healthcare information, etc. Health care professionals must seek to understand not only the information they are passing along but also those to whom they are passing the information. They also must seek to teach consumers to learn- in other words, raise the level of health literacy in every interaction with consumers they have.

Comments and Thoughts

How people think about health care continues to change. The 20th century’s fitness movement as well as other social movements and the internet have led to people taking more responsibility for their own health care and knowledge about their health. The role and status of physicians has diminished from “god-like” for many to “partner” or even “consultant.” More and more people realize that physicians are humans and not infallible. A counter-culture of allopathic and homeopathic and Eastern medical traditions has grown, too. However, popular conception of medical practices and the paradigm of Western medicine can still dominate the way people think to the exclusion of other ways- including that Western medicine itself is infallible.

Let’s be clear: Western medicine does work. But in order to have a fully informed public and to be aware of all facets of our healthcare system and traditions, people need to have all the information available to them. One aspect of Western medicine that is often overlooked, ignored, or even obscured is iatrogenesis: medical intervention induced disease or illness.

While most medical practices do what they are supposed to and physicians certainly do not plot the mass genocide of humanity, sometimes medical theory or medical practices can themselves do more harm than good. Making ourselves aware of this phenomenon does not equate to seeking the destruction of modern medical theory- on the contrary- we can only make something better if we unabashedly acknowledge its limitations. If we never know where the boundaries are then we can never transcend them.

One classic example comes from the history of hand washing. Hand washing was not considered important at one time even among surgeons and gynecologists. In fact, the man- one Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865 CE)- who began suggesting that washing hands before and after contact with patients could reduce infection and mortality from childbirth. He was ridiculed and nearly drummed out of the profession. Clearly, the prevailing medical theory at that time, while not meaning to, caused many illnesses and even deaths. Medical knowledge and practice is no more infallible today than it was then. Until 1972, homosexuality was seen as a disease, a mental disorder. How much trauma and further problems did practices which purportedly “treated” this “disease” cause? This is why acknowledging iatrogenesis is so important. The modern medical establishment tends to shy away from the term “iatrogenesis” or “physician-induced disease” preferring to talk about “patient safety” instead. I will use the more scientific iatrogenesis throughout this web site, referring to patient safety only when talking about the physician’s point of view or when reviewing practices for ensuring patient safety not where an established practice held safe causes more problems- like the practice of not washing hands. It is, of course, very easy for us to look back on Dr. Semmelweis’s detractors and pronounce them ignorant. But let us remember that they believed as they do for reasons valid to them at the time and they did not have the advantage we do of all of the history and knowledge that has come about after them. Just as the physicians of Semmelweis’s time and those believing in the illness of homosexuality could not see the limits of their own paradigms, neither can we. We might be better prepared to see such things but we cannot be assure of it- we cannot know what we do not know.


The sites and articles reviewed in this project represents not a small portion of the works directly dealing with the topic of iatrogenesis and patient safety. Even so, the topic is not discussed openly by most health care providers and professionals unless it is cloaked in the semantics of patient safety- in other words, from the point of view of the dominant establishment. While most medical professionals do not actively seek to hide iatrogenesis while twisting their dastardly mustaches and plotting world domination, as some of the articles reviewed state there does exist a certain atmosphere or culture of denial and obfustication where this topic is concerned. Even sites and organizations that purport to educate people on health matters do not deal with this topic in a straightforward manner. In the light of the growing consumer health informatics movement which seeks to empower consumers, no topic should be relegated to the shadows, especially one that defines the limits of our medical knowledge itself.

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