After she got well, she founded a company to help others

Filed Under: Patients, Providers

After Michelle King Robson recovered from a life-threatening illness, she founded a company to help others understand their health.

That was five years ago: today the company, EmpowHER.com, a social health web site, has 1.7 million users, and a membership numbering almost 55,000.

“I had a complete hysterectomy at 42, and I just tanked afterward,” Robson said in a phone interview not long ago. “They thought that would solve the issues, and that actually made it worse. I was put on a drug that didn’t work for me, and I didn’t know enough about my own body to know what was happening.”

What followed, she says, was a  long journey from doctor to doctor, one that brought her to the depths of depression, to a point where she contemplated taking her own life. And then, she found the answer: a friend gave her a book called “Screaming to Be Heard,” she said, which led her to the right doctor. The doctor diagnosed her properly, changed her medications and restored her to health, she said.

“She got me well, and then I got mad,” she said. “At my lowest point, I made a promise to myself that if I got well I’d be sure that no other woman would ever go this low.”

Robson (right) says she didn’t know how to turn on a computer when she founde EmpowHER, which began with a concept in 2006; the first test site launched  in 2008.

The site provides women (and men) with answers, connections and resources they need to make better decisions about their health and wellness.

Robson (pronounced ROBE-son) says: “Our human-moderated, social community offers a free ASK feature that allows users to ask a health question and receive a response from either a credentialed health and wellness expert, or a peer (another woman like her). EmpowHER members are promised a 24-hour response time. Average handling time per ASK is just under 4 hours.”

There are articles (“Breast Cancer Support: When Tiaras and Boas are Not Enough,”  “Being a Virgin on a College Campus” and “Which Exercises Help Maintain a Healthy Weight?”), first-person stories, advice, community and interactive functions, where readers can vote on articles’ impact. The site has rubrics including “Talk to Women Like You ” (Find your group), “Help Yourself” (Ask your health question) and “Help Others” (Share your health story), Conditions A-Z, Wellness, Diet and Nutrition, Relationships and Family, and Drugs A-Z. There are e-mail digests, support groups, partnerships — all focused, Robson says, on “getting women the information they need.”

So what’s the connection to ClearHealthCosts? We found EmpowHER through our friend Mary Schnack, who wrote a guest blog post for us not long ago about her struggle to get an insurer to pay for cancer drugs, a fight she won with the help of Michelle Robson and Archelle Georgiou at EmpowHER.

Here at ClearHealthCosts, we are focused on the health-care marketplace: what does it cost, why do costs differ, how do I get the most out of my health-care dollar? That’s why we’ve created things like our price lists (how much does a colonoscopy cost? how much does an M.R.I. cost?), our PriceMap using a sample of government figures spotlighting the differences in costs and our Price of Birth Control interactive feature, pointing out the big price disparities in simple prescriptions. We think the money part of health is  important — when money issues keep people from getting the treatment they need, we’re there.

So we see a certain affinity with EmpowHER. Partnering and sharing are the goals, Robson says, and we like partnering and sharing too. The sharing model is important, for women, and so is caretaking, she says.

“We are the ones who are taking care of everyone — our aging parents, our husbands, our children, and we’re kind of taking care of ourselves, when it’s convenient — but mostly we end up taking care of everybody else,” she said of women. “For most women, we’re last on our list. We teach women that you need to advocate for yourself, that you need to take care of yourself or you are not going to be there to take care of your family.”

EmpowHER is a business, not a nonprofit, supported by advertising, licensing and syndication partnerships, content sharing relationships and the like. Robson says that with “90% of women seeking health information on the Web” and “85% of women making all household health and wellness buying decisions (for themselves, their partners / spouses, children and aging parents),” the market for social health, or peer health, on the web is obvious.

EmpowHER is not just about women. in the early days, she says, just 18-19 percent of the people who visited were men, but now, it’s 48 percent.

“They’re looking for the same thing that women are looking for: They’re looking for answers for their wives, their daughters, their mothers,” she said. “They’re on the quest as well.”

Women and men both share with enthusiasm, she said. “Women share, and we don’t care if we know one another or not. What I’ve figured out about men: they don’t share any differently than we do, they just need a safe environment in which they can share, so they don’t feel judged. Men may want to spend some time looking around and coming back before they’ll put their toe in the water.

“When they have a sick spouse — they had no place to go before. Would they go talk to one of their guy friends, and say ‘my wife had a complete hysterectomy and she’s just tanked?’ Maybe not.

“The web has opened up a space for them to be able to dialogue differently without having that face-to-face, which makes me feel so good — men are stepping up and helping their wives, their mothers and their daughters. And I think they’re helping themselves as well, which I think is equally as wonderful.”