free-ranging conversation: susannah fox, pew internet & american life project

April 19, 2012

in free-ranging conversations (interviews with wellness innovators)


i have the deepest respect for susannah fox, associate director, digital strategy at the pew internet & american life project, as i think all people do who come to know her or use her data. she provides all of us with valid, reliable and insightful data from which we can create communication and health promotion strategies—and come a little closer to understanding the lives of those we seek to reach. her social life of health information and people living with chronic disease reports are as emotionally rich as they are data-rich.

while susannah doesn’t focus on employers or organizations, her data and the insights she’s gleaned from it can provide much-needed direction.

fm: susannah, how would you describe what you do?
sf: i’m an internet geologist. a geologist studies the rocks but doesn’t judge them. the spread of global technology is a fact. i bring the data to show it’s a fact that we’re experiencing a mobile revolution.

fm: employers are beginning to tap into this, whether directly or through their health partners. they’re certainly relying more on self-service, even when they don’t know ownership or access figures. what would you tell employers about understanding these figures?
sf: on our website, we created a series of questions. i’d direct them to the three A’s:

  • assets: what tech devices do people have?
  • actions: here’s where someone has a device, but what actions have they taken? maybe they’ve never sent a text message. or they have access to the internet but never uploaded a photo.
  • attitude: there are people who have all of the assets and are doing all of the actions, but they hate it. they have a negative attitude toward technology.

it’s a strength for employers to see the diversity of the three A’s. all three play into whether someone’s ready to be a health care consumer.

fm: what have you learned about what makes someone ready to be a health care consumer?
sf: for years we’ve talked about whether certain activities soften people up for greater participation. the meteoric rise in self-booking travel and online banking, for example. i’m more interested in the mobile and diagnosis difference. we can do regression analysis and see that mobile is a factor in people becoming more active. so, too, is a chronic condition. yet, if you’re looking at a population with two or more chronic conditions, they’re less likely to have internet access. if employers provide access, they may trigger a change. those people may become more active in their health care.

fm: sounds like a case could be made for an employer providing internet access, whether through kiosks at work or as an additional health benefit, to this particular audience.
sf: if you can get an internet-connected mobile device into someone’s hands, you’re likely to get them more engaged—generally speaking. they’ll upload photos. upload their status updates.

fm: since we’re talking about people in certain audiences or demographic groups and how to reach them, let me ask you your opinion on something i’d like to see more of: affinity groups. not affinity groups as we’re used to seeing them—for women, minorities and such. but affinity groups for caregivers or people with this or that chronic condition.
sf: i’d say look at models of the offline world, like weight watchers, and see how important it is to share support and information, and how that model is world-renowned and is essentially a model of peer counseling. that can be done online now with many, many conditions. our research shows that people want this. when people search online, one in five is looking for a person like them. that changes to one in four when we’re talking about chronic conditions or people caring for a loved one.

i’m increasingly inspired by looking at the basic human connection that the internet can bring. sometimes it’s just a bulletin board, a listserv or a forum. when you’re dealing with a lower-income population, text messaging or email is very powerful.

people are thirsty for the human connection. it’s something to consider as part of a wellness strategy—to connect them. is it the right space with an employer? that’s a valid question. it’s a valid research question.

fm: any chance you’ll turn your attention to the employer space?
sf: we’re doing a survey of major arts administrators, a survey to understand the use of the internet in arts organizations. i think employer research would fit into that category. traditionally, we’ve looked at the impact of the internet at an individual level. it’s a natural progression to extend that to the organizational level.


we heard it here. perhaps there’s an employer-specific data set in our future.


read more free-ranging conversations.

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