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Grabbing health by the horns, one phone at a time


In the wake of December’s Disneyland measles outbreak, presumptive presidential contenders from Chris Christie to Hillary Clinton have all weighed in on a seemingly contrived debate over vaccinations.

But in the eyes of the American public, this debate is less contrived than one would hope. A surprising 9 percent of Americans believe that the measles vaccine — which has all but eliminated the once endemic virus from America — is “not safe,” while another 7 percent “don’t know,” according to a recent Pew survey.

The survey’s demographic breakdown reveals some particularly distressing beliefs toward vaccination among millennials; 18-29 year olds had the lowest confidence in the safety of the proven vaccine, with 15 percent of respondents answering that the vaccine is “not safe.” Compare that with the mere 7 percent of those 65 and older who held the same view.

My generation, the best-connected and quickest-to-Google, has assumed the least informed view.

Perhaps this is because we have relatively little experience with vaccines compared to past generations. It was in the time of our parents and grandparents, after all, that the U.S. medical community helped eradicate smallpox and measles.

In the 1950s, for example, an estimated three to four million Americans were infected with measles each year and 400 to 500 people died. This included roughly 48,000 hospitalizations and 4,000 cases of dangerous brain swelling (encephalitis). During this time, nearly every American child contracted measles before age 15, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the U.S. could declare measles “eliminated” from the homeland after a strong vaccination effort. This meant that measles was no longer continuously transmitted in America for any period 12 months or greater. While travel-induced outbreaks still occur, elimination efforts have confined them to just that — outbreaks — and nothing more.

Millennials have therefore been shielded from the horrors of numerous diseases, including measles. Unlike our parents and grandparents, we just don’t associate a shot in the arm with a life saved.

Stitching this experiential gap between generations is not possible short of reintroducing viruses that have long been eliminated in the United States. But that is an unethical and unproductive option.

Unable to close the experiential gap, many then turn to education. Education plays an important role in increasing vaccination rates, but for our generation, it unfortunately will take more than a PSA or informational pamphlet to induce us to get vaccinated. In fact, it will take more than health care coverage and horror stories to get us into the doctor’s office and vaccinated.

It will also require the right app.

For us, the right app and online access to our health care information may make the difference between taking control of our health and merely guessing about it. This is because we’re lazy: If our personal record of immunizations is not online and in our hands, it doesn’t exist.

A majority of insured Americans with primary healthcare physicians likely can access health records online, but it’s a slim majority at best. Even among that slim majority, not all patients have access to a mobile app to view their health records.

However, a myriad of apps exists for this purpose, depending on your healthcare provider.  They are generally easy to set up and easy to use. The app I use is MyChart. It employs a basic design, with an efficient notification system that alerts me when I need immunizations and doctor visits.

A local foundation, Emily’s Way, has realized the need for greater adoption of such apps and has set out to increase their adoption. Founded in the loving memory of friend and Palo Alto resident Emily Benatar, Emily’s Way recently completed an initiative to encourage college students and others to gain access to their health care records. So far, the group has encouraged 1,204 people to go through the three easy steps to health record access.

The group’s philosophy is simple: Increasing access to healthcare information will improve healthcare outcomes. Imagine you’re a Stanford student, far away from home, and you go to the doctor’s office. The doctor asks you, “what are your allergies, medications and vaccinations?” Would you know what to say? What if it were a time-sensitive emergency and the records were not on file?

Before downloading MyChart, I wouldn’t have been able to answer the doctor’s questions. But that is no longer the case and I am safer for it.

Granted, increased healthcare app adoption will not alone rebuke the beliefs of the few in society who disapprove of vaccinations. Adherents of “holistic health” regimes — all natural approaches to healthcare that have sprouted in Marin County and Boulder, Colorado — might necessitate other regulatory, educational and cultural efforts in order to increase the attractiveness of vaccinations.

However, for a student at Stanford who will soon need to get vaccinated, an app encouraging me to do so moves me one-step closer to the waiting room. It helps cut through the cluttered busyness of Stanford life and remind me that, hey, my health actually matters.  

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’

Aaron Zelinger Gordon likes to argue with anybody who can bear it—friends, strangers, other Daily columnists, and himself. As such, a friend once berated him for refusing to believe that it's not butter. He appreciates few things more than astutely cited Will Ferrell quotes, dance floor shenanigans, oreo milkshakes, and foreign policy debates. When not studying Symbolic Systems and Economics, he can be found procrastinating in the pool, writing poetry, and learning languages other than his native Spanish and English. Contact him for coffee at zelinger 'at' stanford dot edu.