• April 2010

Health care expert Robin Strongin asks "Do You Have an Avatar?"

By Robin Strongin
Creator, Disruptive Women in Health Care

I’ll admit it, at first I was skeptical about the concept of avatars, which Wikipedia defines as “a computer user’s representation of himself/herself or alter ego.”

These cartoon-like creatures are used in virtual worlds such as Second Life and Whyville, and the more I see the benefits of virtual worlds, the greater the value and potential I can see for health care. Here’s why.

Second Life

The website that houses Second Life is the most well-known virtual world, with more than 13 million registered users. It is primarily a social environment with a strong creative component, since any user is allowed to create content within the world.

This highly-modifiable environment makes Second Life uniquely suited to educational campaigns. For example, a space could be created to simulate the everyday difficulties that people with mobility challenges (i.e., people in wheelchairs), cataracts, or diabetes-related eye illnesses face to help educate those without these conditions.


Whyville, is an educational virtual world geared towards preteens and children (ages 8 to 15) whose goal is to engage its 3 million users across a broad array of subject areas, including healthy living, art, history, and social issues.

One could imagine an opportunity for multi-generational education by creating “DiabetesTown” within Whyville that would educate users about the importance of proper diet and exercise, regular vision screening, and what life is like for friends and relatives with diabetes.

What do CIGNA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Partners HealthCare have in common?

They have all staked out real estate in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Proponents are quick to point out that with today’s exponential growth in chronic illness, finding tools to modify behavior and encourage self-management is critical – and behavior changes learned in virtual worlds have real world advantages.

As more and more people search for information online and become more comfortable with new social networking tools, “health care” has a phenomenal opportunity to reach thousands of people in interesting, creative ways.

Back in August 2008, AIS Health Business Daily published a story entitled Presence in Virtual Worlds Could Help Health Plans Achieve Real-World Behavior Change. Examples that caught my attention included:

  • Partners HealthCare, through a partnership with the Center for Connected Health, is conducting a virtual clinical trial of a relaxation program on its Second Life Island.
  • CIGNA is exploring the use of virtual disease management programs.
  • The CDC partnered with Whyville to promote flu vaccine awareness. “During its first year on the site, the CDC virtually vaccinated 20,000 Whyville residents. During its 2007-2008 campaign, 41,000 residents were vaccinated. Because grandparents use Whyville to connect with their grandchildren, the CDC was able to involve this important cohort in the awareness campaign. Health plans could use a similar strategy for their enrollees.”

Give it a test-drive. You’ll need an avatar for both of the sites, and some Linden Dollars to spend in Second Life. But all that will become clear when you start poking around: secondlife.com/whatis/avatar.php and www.whyville.net/smmk/nice

Here’s to the new you!

About Robin Strongin

Robin Strongin is an accomplished public affairs expert, with more than 25 years of experience working in Washington, DC. Her areas of specialization include health care, science, technology and innovation. Robin has worked with and for federal and state governments, regulatory agencies, Congress, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, corporations, coalitions and trade associations.

She founded Disruptive Women in Health Care in 2008 to serve as a platform for provocative ideas, thoughts and solutions in the health sphere. “We recognize that to accomplish this, we need to call on experts outside of the health industry,” she asserts.

She is also the president of Amplify Public Affairs, the next generation in public affairs, leading the way in the integration of new media and traditional communications strategies.

Contact Robin by email, rstrongin@amplifypublicaffairs.net.