MARCH 30, 2007


Medicine's not-so-secret Second Life

Public health education thrives in so-called
"virtual worlds"

Another world

Second 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.

Last 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," she says.

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 ( 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 July 13."

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.



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