Life isn't the only virtual world out there. The
CDC has also established a presence in "Whyville"
an online community with over a million users,
mostly kids aged eight to 15. Dr Janice Nall,
director of E-Health marketing at the CDC, says
getting involved in online communities is about
more than spreading information. "There could
be interventions, strategies to get folks involved
in thinking about behavioural change," she explains.
November, for example, the CDC launched a seasonal
flu vaccination project in Whyville, hoping to
spread the message that vaccines are important.
"The kids were telling each other 'hey, you need
to get your vaccination,'" Dr Nall recalls. "A
few weeks later, a virtual flu virus was introduced
to the world they made it communicable
like the real deal and kids who didn't
bother to get their jab might see their avatar
get "sick" and have on-screen sneezing fits,"
Imagine flying to a seminar for
CME credits not in an airplane, but leaping to
the class in a single bound, Superman-style.
With the technology of "virtual
worlds" like Second Life (www.secondlife.com)
it's very possible. Of course it wouldn't be your physical
being doing the travelling, but rather a digital manifestation
of you called an "avatar," which you can customize and
control like a video game character.
Primitive online virtual worlds
have existed since the late 1980s. But now the technology
has reached the point that people are starting to take
these "places" seriously so much so that Sweden
plans to open a "virtual embassy" in Second Life and
Harvard and other schools have begun offering real courses
in the virtual world. Reuters just opened a virtual
news bureau to cover the Second Life beat. And medicine
is starting to get in on the act too: the American Cancer
Society and US Centers for Disease Control are high
profile early adopters. As of March, Second Life counted
an estimated 4.4 million users more than the
population of Ireland.
You would think that the CDC's real-life concerns would
keep it busy enough, but the organization actually has
a very long history of using mass media to reach physicians.
Second Life, they say, is an educational opportunity
they just couldn't pass up. "In this day and age there
are a lot of new tools that allow us to get our health
message out there," explains John Anderton, PhD, acting
associate director for communications science at the
CDC. "And for pedagogic purposes, these virtual universes
are almost limitless."
Dr Anderton discovered it would
be quite inexpensive for the CDC to establish a presence
in the virtual world. "It costs $72 for a year and then
you're given access to tools and a patch of land to
build your space on." (It's free for a stripped down
membership but you'll enter Second Life as a
virtual vagrant). "So we purchased this space, created
an avatar with a sort of metaphoric name and launched
her into the space on the CDC's 60th anniversary, last
It was quite a challenge to come up with the face of
public health virtual though she may be. "Actually,
the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta is the one who chose
the idea for the avatar back in 1963 when he presented
a bust of Hygeia to the CDC the muse of health
in Greek Mythology. I thought Hygeia, metaphorically,
would be the right way to start," explains Dr Anderton.
He gave her the surname Philo, which means "lover of"
in Greek. "I thought 'lover of health' was a nice metaphoric
way to name someone entering this new world," he says.
It cost another buck of Uncle Sam's
money to buy Hygeia a respectable digital pinstriped
suit the default outfits were a little too unprofessional.
(Doctor attire like lab coats is also available for
purchase in this virtual world). "She hasn't changed
clothes in six months," jokes Dr Anderton. "But I understand
some people change their avatar's clothes every day
in Second Life, just as they would in the real world."
Meet Hygeia Philo, the
virtual face of the CDC in Second Life
Dr Anderton says the denizens of Second Life make their
way to the CDC's virtual office for a variety of reasons.
"Some come to the space like tourists, people who look
around and don't want to talk and others come looking
for distinct health information," he notes. One person
walked up to him (actually Hygeia) and said "my mum
was just diagnosed with cancer, what do I do?"
While he feels Second Life is the
perfect portal for general health information, "like
a library or a good website," Dr Anderton says he often
refers people with specific questions or concerns back
to their doctor. "It's very easy to point people to
more information but this is not a surrogate
for doctor-patient interaction," he says.
This technology could be a perfect
prescription for many of the woes of today's physicians.
With your crazy schedule wouldn't it be easier to just
fire up the computer the next time you need to attend
a conference? On the other hand, once patients get wind
of the this technology, they might start clamouring
for virtual house calls.