In its broadest sense, consumer informatics can refer to that branch of the field of communications dedicated to understanding and improving the use of online information resources by the public. Online information resources have been made available to consumers in a variety of different market sectors, from airline ticketing and travel to the online distribution of goods and services. In these instances, the online interactions replace interpersonal encounters as the basis for generating value to a sponsoring organization’s bottom line. Communication researchers are often brought in to be sure the structure of the communication is made as user friendly and satisfactory as possible; unsatisfactory structures will drive away customers. In a more specific sense, the study of consumer informatics has gained its greatest currency in the area of medicine and healthcare.
The French term informatique was coined in the early 1960s to describe the potential benefits, especially in science, of sharing data and tools electronically by mounting them online in a remotely accessible, networked fashion. Not long after the term was introduced, scientists and engineers began exploiting the communication capabilities of informatics technologies to support electronic mail, discussion groups, document sharing, and other types of collaborative information activities online. It was not long before the benefits of networked computer environments as communication media were felt by these professionals. Networked professionals used the connective features of the online technologies to overcome barriers of geographic distance and social isolation (Hesse et al. 1993).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the term “informatics” became commonplace in medical environments, where demands for information were high. Departments of medical informatics emerged in hospitals throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. Interdisciplinary teams of computer scientists and biomedical researchers began exploring ways of using informatics technologies to overcome barriers in delivering medical expertise to underserved areas, an activity referred to as “telemedicine.” Digital library projects became popular as a way of making the breadth of medical literature available to physicians.
Up until the early 1990s, the benefits of informatics technologies were primarily available to professionals working in science, medicine, engineering, or education. During the last decade of the twentieth century, two events co-occurred that would change that. The first was a proposal from scientist Tim Berners-Lee, at the CERN High Energy Physics Laboratory in Switzerland, to create an interconnected computer environment making it simple for users to share information online in graphical ways. He called his concept the “world wide web.” The second was a movement by the US Congress that would open the benefits of the world wide web to the general public.
These two events, occurring at a time when ownership of personal computers was becoming commonplace, opened up the advantages of an online transaction environment to consumers. Repercussions would soon be felt through all aspects of the global economy and in communication. Entire market sectors would restructure to take advantage of global access to consumers, eliminating the need for intermediaries, and accelerating the effects of competition on price and access (Friedman 2005). The communication environment would become increasingly more interactive, decentralized, personalized, and information-rich (Viswanath 2005).
As the US Congress opened access to the Internet in the 1990s and the world wide web caught on as an understandable access point for consumers, medical informatics specialists began exploring methods of using information technologies to meet the needs of healthcare consumers. The term consumer health informatics was coined by researchers in Canada to distinguish the emerging field from its roots in the more clinically based medical informatics (Eysenbach 2000).
The expansion of research activities into the area of consumer health informatics was also catalyzed by a general rise of consumerism among recipients of healthcare. Many observers have noted that previous generations of patients behaved with general passivity in response to their healthcare. Newer generations, accustomed to finding what they wanted through online computer access, appeared to be taking a more assertive role in their health decision-making. Designed appropriately, consumer informatics tools could help empower these patients by giving them the support they need to be proactive in their own health maintenance over their life-spans (Nelson & Ball 2004).
With this background, Eysenbach and Jadad (2001) suggested that the field of consumer health informatics should be considered as a whole new discipline in online communications research. Its goals should encompass analyzing, formalizing, and modeling consumer preferences and information needs; developing systems to integrate those needs into the broader biomedical research and delivery enterprise; investigating the effectiveness and efficiency of consumer informatics applications to improve health outcomes while stemming the tide of escalating healthcare costs; and studying the effects of consumer informatics systems on public health, the patient–provider relationship, and personal quality of life (Eysenbach & Jadad 2001).
The need for protecting public health through a scientifically garnered evidence base is as high in the case of consumer informatics as it is for general medicine. For example, the unequal diffusion of consumer informatics technologies may actually worsen concerns over health disparities by creating a digital divide in health-related knowledge (Viswanath et al. 2006). Likewise, diffusing a consumer health information system without the benefit of a “socio-technical” evidence base may cost millions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures or, worse, may put the public at risk from unsafe clinical practice (Coiera 2004). As in other areas of medicine, a solid evidence base is needed to guide the development of consumer informatics technologies in productive and safe ways (Hesse & Shneiderman 2007).
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- Viswanath, K., Breen, N., Meissner, H., et al. (2006). Cancer knowledge and disparities in the information age. Journal of Health Communication, 11(suppl. 1), 1–17.
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