Effect Measure

Second Life is a virtual reality site, superficially similar to some massive multiplayer role playing games one finds on the net (like World of Warcraft). But it’s not a game but a social venue. I’ve tried it out and posted on or mentioned it several times (here, here, here and here). Second Life is a global phenomenon, not just a US one. Now Spanish public health officials are trying it out as a way to reach young people about drugs and sexually transmitted diseases:

Real doctors will log on and offer advice to their anonymous patients. What both will see is an image of a consulting room with a doctor and a typical patient.

Dr Rosario Jimènez, of the Adolescent Attention Working Group, is one of the doctors who will spend up to four hours a week answering their virtual patients’ questions.

She said: “Teenagers do not often go to see the doctor but this is an efficient and amusing tool to reach them because we can both use the same route. Even though they do not often suffer serious illnesses, they often expose themselves to risks which can develop into problems in the future.

“This is a way to talk about their doubts about taking drugs or sexual relations which they cannot do in a traditional consultation.” (The Guardian)

I don’t know whether this will work or not but it is the kind of thinking we in public health will need to do as we try to get information from and to a new generation. Internet and computer usage patterns differ dramatically in people whose age difference is as small as 5 to 10 years. Resources and decisions in public health are made by an older generation that is even further removed from adolescents and young adults. I know from talking to colleagues that there is little understanding about how adolescents, teens and young adults use technology and how it changes how they relate to each other and worse, little sympathy for it. Older public health practitioners rarely heard of Second Life, but I know from experience that if and when they do, they are completely baffled by it. Their most common reaction is, “I don’t get it,” especially when told that the biggest business in Second Life is the same as the biggest business in the rest of the internet, sex.

The Spanish Second Life advocates offer the obligatory caution that such virtual encounters are not a substitute for face time with a health care provider (notice I didn’t say face time with a doctor; that quaint notion is fading fast). That’s true. It isn’t the same. It’s different. And as the Spanish doctors observe, some things might be much better done this way.

If you want to avail yourself of a visit on the isla de salud you’ll have to speak Spanish. But if you aren’t a citizen of Spain you’d be using up their resources without paying for it. And you wouldn’t want to do that, would you? Anyway, you can use your own country’s health services.

Can’t you?


  1. #1 Susan Och
    May 13, 2008

    When I read the first few sentences, I thought that they were going to educate about STIs by indroducing a few into the game and logging how fast they spread.

  2. #2 Tasha
    May 13, 2008

    Susan, now that would be interesting. 🙂

    I think this is a great idea. People are increasingly learning about these topics through less traditional sources – often because they want to hear a less traditional perspective. In my day we used to learn about drugs and STI’s through LoveLine. I think there’d be a huge market for something like this in the States.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    May 14, 2008

    Susan, I think that idea has wonderful potential as a science fiction story: you know, an STD is released into Second Life and it evolves sentience and becomes Skynet. 😉

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