Government health websites studied

January 26, 2006, vol. 35, no. 2
By Barry Shell

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Karen Smith is a master of arts student from SFU's school of communication whose thesis focuses on the usefulness of government-produced, health information websites to patients in the waiting room of a Vancouver community health centre.

She observes where people go online, what they look for, and what problems they have accessing health information. “There's a real digital divide,” says Smith.

“Health is such a cornerstone in the lives of Canadian citizens and if some people have more access than others, it's potentially not fair,” she says. But accessibility is only one of the many social justice issues Smith has identified.

She studies applications of technology for social inclusion. Her research is part of communication professor Ellen Balka's Action For Health project, a $3 million, four-year study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Researchers are looking at more than the internet. They examine electronic patient records, computerized data collection systems, automated drug dispensaries, and many other information technologies employed throughout health care.

Now entering the third year of the study, the group has made some significant discoveries.

When the government decides to create a website, budget decisions affect the design, content, and maintenance of the site.

For example, content might be contracted from a syndicated corporate source operated by a private company.

“The Healthy Ontario website,, gets drug information from MediResource Inc., for example,” says Smith.

For those who have not investigated where the information comes from on government sites, this could come as a surprise.

Smith comes to SFU with a BA in multimedia and women's studies from McMaster University.

After graduating, Smith spent seven months in the Philippines working with Industry Canada's Netcorps (like the Peace Corps, but for internet projects).

She helped a small human rights organization that broadcasts a radio program on human rights among migrant workers.

The digital divide was palpable. “People worked at desks outside due to lack of space,” says Smith. Hardware problems were of a very basic nature. “You'd leave work at night and everything would be fine. When you came back in the morning, you'd have to troubleshoot,” says Smith. That could mean getting down on hands and knees to check the power cord for teeth marks.

“We had problems that were bigger than viruses,” says Smith. On returning to Canada, she worked for more than a year on content for an online banking company.

Smith was attracted to the Action For Health project because of the varied group Balka had assembled. They include experts in computer science, medical writing, nursing, counselling, communications, multimedia, as well as women's and liberal studies.

“It's normal to be abnormal,” says Smith. But this eclectic blending of disciplines is what gives the team its unique investigative power to study health information systems.

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