Health Information Flows

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jenny Epstein

Much health information is a one-way flow. For example, there is little reciprocity between the first world and developing world as to what types of information are needed. There is also little mutual exchange between conventional medical practitioners and traditional healers. Those with power determine what knowledge is and how it will be created.


The pattern that the flow of health information often takes shows the position of power of each party involved. Those with power define what health and illness mean and how medicine will be practiced.
The definitions of health and disease are reflections of the society they come from. Much non-biomedical knowledge is not regarded as legitimate and therefore health information that could be beneficial to many people is not available.
The abstraction of information on the internet or through writing inadvertently helps to promote one information vehicle over another. Oral sources of knowledge and health information become less and less important.


The exchange of information allows everyone to benefit from perspectives on health that are different from what is familiar. People benefit by being able to perceive reality in new ways and to solve problems more creatively.
One definition of traditional or indigenous medicine is medical practices that are based on oral methods of passing information from one generation to the next. Some traditional medicines are based on thousands of years of observations. However, the legitimacy of oral traditions is suspect until proven by scientific method. Edward Jenner is credited with discovering the vaccination for small pox in much the same way Columbus is credited with discovering the American continent. Milkmaids knew that once they had cow pox, they were protected them from getting sick with small pox. It was their knowledge, based on generations of observation and oral teaching, that Jenner used for his work. The legitimacy of the oral tradition is dismissed as a quaint folk tradition and Jenner is credited as the inventor of vaccinations in health textbooks. The flow of information in this historical example is not acknowledged as being reciprocal.
Another example of one-way information flows is the form that information takes. The internet is an abstract form of information. Not all health information can be conveyed to all people in this one form. Health information that is based on observation and conveyed by oral methods does not adapt well to a world dominated by abstraction and a reductionist scientific method. Users of the internet are generally readers. Other traditions however, can be accommodated through digital photography and videos. This type of information sharing, between abstract and oral or visual forms can be facilitated if both forms are given equal legitimacy. There must be equal respect for knowledge that does not arise from a western, scientific methodology and also, for cultures that do not traditionally obtain information through abstract forms. The categorical denial of any other approach or perception of health and illness denies vast numbers of people useful ways of living.
Allowing only one type of system to dominate concepts of health is similar to mono-cropping in agriculture. One perspective cannot be adjusted to all situations globally. Biomedicine, for example, approaches problems from a cultural perspective. The use of other cultural perspectives does not invalidate it but serves to broaden knowledge. Identifying what works to solve health problems globally requires letting go of ethnocentric attitudes that invalidate other knowledge systems. Using only written forms of information helps to create a mono-culture of information.


The sharing of information that the internet provides can connect people of different cultures and perspectives. However, there must be a concerted effort by those with access and input to the internet to maintain a bi-directional information flow. One must consider how the form of information affects what is shared as health knowledge.

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