Photo by Andrew Batitta on Flickr

Speak Up

The network is our superpower

Two years ago, I interrupted a speaker at a big health/tech conference, right in the middle of his presentation. I still blush at the memory. But the speaker was citing data — my data—incorrectly and I couldn’t let it pass.

Brian Dolan recently wrote about how he wished he’d spoken up when he heard someone spreading misinformation at a conference:

Unfortunately, about 80 people sitting in the room either accepted this as new information or failed to stand up to correct the speaker. I wish I had pulled a Susannah Fox and done the latter.

He linked to my 2012 post about what happened at Stanford Medicine X.

Thanks to Fred Trotter for adapting the xkcd cartoon.

In that post I asked:

  • What style of conference is the right one for the health/tech field? The TED-style “sage on stage” who does not take questions? Or the scientific-meeting style of engaged debate? Or is there a place for both?
  • Do different rules apply to start-ups? Is it OK to fudge a little bit to make a good point, as one might do in a pitch? Personally, I do not think people are entitled to their own facts. There’s too much at stake.
We can’t let misinformation—or worse—go by without comment.

I think it’s time for more people to speak up in health care.

More pediatricians should express their measles outrage.

More people should chronicle the reality of living with chronic conditions.

More people wearing medical devices should demand access to the data being collected.

More people should speak up about medical errors before—and after—they happen.

More patients and caregivers should be included in the audience, on stage, and in the planning of health and medical conferences.

And, of course, we all need to learn to listen when people speak up.

On a personal level, I’ve been reflecting on why I spoke up that day.

Just thinking about the incident makes my palms sweat. It was not polite. It was disruptive. But I had to speak up on behalf of the thousands of people who had taken time out of their day to answer the survey that was being cited incorrectly. We owe it to those respondents to be cautious in our interpretation of the data.

I also didn’t stand up alone. I had colleagues sitting right there next to me — the Medicine X community — and I had a respected institution — the Pew Research Center — on my name tag. I could almost hear the voice of Scott Keeter, the Obi Wan Kenobi of survey research, in my head as I formulated my response.

But what about people who are alone or feel unqualified when they spot misinformation or an error about to happen?

How might we help more people feel empowered to speak up?

How might we help people to see that they have a superpower? We all do.

We all have the ability to connect, in real time, with our virtual colleagues and friends: all the people who have trusted us with their stories, all the people we have helped and who have helped us, even in small ways. This is what the internet has created: connection across time, space, and hierarchy.

No matter where you are, no matter who is challenging you, you have the support of a team behind you. But only if you’ve nurtured your network in good times so that they are ready to help you through bad times.

All the work that we do in our online and offline communities pays off when we need help. The network is our superpower.

So feed your network. Borrow some courage. Speak up. It’s time.


With thanks to Ernesto Ramirez, Kevin Clauson, and Wendy Sue Swanson, MD.

I’d love to hear from you about what you think! Please write a response or post a comment on my personal blog — or find me on Twitter: @SusannahFox.