Online mothers groups: powerful, unheralded influencers of family healthcare decisions

For all the interest in reputation apps (Yelp, Angie’s List, etc.), I’ve been struck by the number of household decisions across the country that seem to be powerfully influenced by another, less-well-appreciated force: online mothers groups.

I’ve been especially impressed, more specifically, by the number of professional women I know — a prominent healthcare consulting executive in D.C., for example, or a top VC in SF  – who immediately cite such groups as a key source of information, whether for choosing a pediatrician or selecting child seats for the car.  In fact, these groups often seem to be both the first and the most trusted source of such referral information.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; after all, “Data show that women are at the center of healthcare decisions in the family unit,” according to Sue Siegel, former Partner at MDV and now CEO of GE’s Healthymagination division.

In the Bay Area, leading examples are the Golden Gate Mothers Group, the Burlingame Mothers Club, the Parents’ Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park (PAMP), and the Berkeley Parents Network (BPN).  These groups generally started as a resource for mothers, though some have expanded to include fathers.  The Berkeley group appears unusually integrated, including (according to a BPN administrator) an estimated 35-40% men, a fraction that has reportedly increased in recent years.  Most groups appear to have far less (if any) participation by fathers, however, and I’ve deliberately used the term “mothers groups” to emphasize this point.

The Palo Alto-Menlo Park group  – as you might have imagined – produces an elegant, data-rich annual report, including informative demographic details (although interestingly, not the gender split of its members; a request for this is pending).  According to the 2012 report, half the members report annual household incomes above $250k, half work outside the house full-time and another quarter work part-time, about 2/3 have an advanced degree.  And the most common reason cited for joining – more important than playgroups, activities, or member discounts?  To be part of the online community.

The influence of mothers groups raises a host of important, and in some cases, vexing questions:

  1. What is the relative importance of trusted peers (vs objective metrics) in service recommendations (and are improved healthcare metrics likely to change this)?
  2. Is there an underappreciated opportunity to positively impact the health of families by improving our understanding of real-world influence patterns (a thesis of startups such as Activate Networks, for example)?
  3. Conversely, what is role of influence patterns in promulgating dangerous misinformation, leading to inadequate childhood vaccinations, for example?
  4. Have we adequately appreciated the enabling function of social networks to broaden the reach of busy professional moms, many of whom clearly still value interactions with other moms, even if they might not have the time to engage off-line as fully as they might like (a motivation for startups such as Alt12, for example)?
  5. The obvious question begged by Question 4: What about the professional dads?  While some fathers participate in online parents groups, most, it’s safe to say, do not.  Are they gathering input relevant to family decisions from other sources, or just not collecting as much information at all?  Is there an effective way to reach them, and motivate their involvement?
  6. How is it that even absurdly busy professional moms are often still responsible for so many of the key household decisions, including around health?  Is there early evidence — such as the conspicuously active involvement of fathers in the Berkeley parent group – suggesting a broader societal change may be underway?

I look forward to your thoughts.

 

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David
Shaywitz

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