I just finished The Filter Bubble, a book that details how everyone from Google to Amazon is rushing to ensure our web experienced is “personalized,” often without our knowledge or consent. It’s a provocative concept and, though the book occasionally overreaches in its alarm, the work raises serious questions about whether efforts to provide readers only information that they will find appealing will turn us into a politically rigid, consumption-driven population.
But there’s one area where the unseen hand of personalization may have a more positive risk-benefit profile: health. Right now, I provide a lot of information online that could be hugely important to my health. In addition to actually search for health information, I download recipes, plan vacations, map running routes and a thousand other things that have a measurable effect on my physical and mental well being. And Google knows all about that.
With all of that data, I’m sure the cookies on my machine tell an interesting story about my health history that can be used to better customize the news and information that I receive to my specific concerns. Yes, there are privacy concerns here that are not insignificant. But if this data is going to be gathered anyway (and — unless you are both concerned and savvy about privacy — it’s being gathered right now), anything that could help better target health information is likely to be a boon.
Here’s an example: earlier this month, a large new study suggested that CT scans could cut the death rate from lung cancer, which is, far and away, the biggest cancer killer in this country, by 20 percent. Headlines screamed the good news. And the news was good, but only for certain populations: the study followed those between 55 and 74 who had a “30 pack-year” history of smoking: more than 1,000 packs over the course of a lifetime. For guys in that demographic, this is public health news of enormous proportions. For a younger, never-smoker like me that is outside of that group, information about the study is, personally, irrelevant at best and harmful at worst (if all the details aren’t made clear and I’m driven to seek screening). Scary as it seems to me at times, Google, Facebook and a dozen other sites are well-aware that I’m not a 55 to 74 year-old with a lifelong pack-a-day habit.
Better personalization might make the lung cancer study harder for me to find and other information — more applicable to my life — easier to find. The media and communications implications of this are important. While mainstream media often shy away from coverage of less-common conditions, more personalization means more demand for patient-focused content about specific diseases, therapies and issues. And that, in turn, means that publications such as CURE Today or MedPage Today will only grow in prominence. The trend toward the niche publication is only accelerating, and, short of a privacy backlash, the forces described in “The Filter Bubble” will only accelerate that.