As a health educator, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I started my public health and health education career with the Arthritis Foundation, Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter, headquartered in Philadelphia. My goal was to help decrease the burden of RA for people of all ages. Yet a challenge exists in such a goal. But these days, things are changing!
Over the past few years, the RA population has been increasingly involved in the digital space. It has long been perceived that people with RA are "too old" to be actively using the Internet. However, RA is no longer an "old person's disease". In fact, the majority of individuals impacted by RA are defined as in the "prime of life"—people 20 to 50 years old. We know this age group to be Internet savvy—including when it comes to searching out health information. In fact, the Internet & American Life Project of the Pew Research Center found that 61% of adults looked for health information online. Furthermore, of people looking for health information online, 59% have also engaged in research such as reading someone else's commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, Web site, or blog; signed up to receive updates about health or medical issues; or shared photos, videos, or audio files online about health or medical issues.
As for older people with RA, Web trends show that a large proportion of the population is actively engaged in digital media. Seventy percent of adults aged 50 to 64 years and 38% of adults 65 and older use the Internet. Also, according to the Pew Research Center, the steepest increase in Internet use has taken place among adults 65 years and older.
While there are no data readily available on the Internet habits of people with RA, it is important to note that rheumatoid arthritis is highly integrated into the Internet, with 11,900,000 results from a Google search, as well as in social media, with 284 Facebook pages, 5,130 YouTube Videos, hundreds of active Tweets, and a plethora of online discussion boards. The Internet clearly has a lot to offer people with RA who seek answers in a forum both highly visible and anonymous.
What does this all mean? In my opinion, as the population ages, RA incidence and prevalence increase and Internet usage skyrockets, health education campaigns should incorporate a key digital component. People with RA are looking to learn about treatments, other people’s experiences, and management tips and tools. Because the condition causes pain, inflammation, swelling, and a possible decrease in quality of life, people with RA are a motivated group looking for readily accessible information. Some nonpharmaceutical resources that have strongly supported the arthritis population in this manner includes the Arthritis Foundation (www.arthritis.org), which includes educational material in multiple formats, as well as discussion forums. Also highly used and well constructed for arthritis patients are the following Web sites: the Mayo Clinic (www.mayo.org), the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus), and the Rheumatoid Arthritis Talk discussion boards (www.RheumatoidArthritisTalk.com).
People with RA aren’t the Luddites or paper-and-pencil group that they were once thought to be. By listening to needs and crafting a solution, we can create an opportunity to help these people learn and manage their condition, and a prime venue for these interventions is the Internet. The vehicle is further reaching now that the RA community is utilizing digital and internet resources. Disease education and management can address public health goals that health educators can be sure to leverage through a digital medium. And because of these assets, I believe I am a bit closer to reaching my goal of decreasing the burden of RA, and this goal continues to get closer every day as we continue to provide accessible and effective education to the interactive RA community.