Within a network, the fact that a person unknown to you has the flu has meaning for you, explains Christakis. "What this suggests is that we need to think about health interventions in a way that's more collective and not as individualistic."
Christakis says studying networks is not just an intellectual exercise. "What can we do with this knowledge? We know that germs flow though networks, ideas about drug prescriptions and health practices flow through networks, and behavioral phenomena such as weight gain or smoking cessation flow through networks. How can we exploit this knowledge to intervene in the network to make the world a better place?"
Christakis and Fowler are interested in how they can take a network of people in a school or workplace and identify the influencers to target for behavior change. "Who can influence people to wear their safety helmets or take their blood pressure medication or quit smoking?"
Harvard has licensed information from Christakis Lab to a start-up called Activate Networks Inc., which was cofounded by Christakis. Companies interested in tapping in to the power of social networks include Accenture, Cardinal Health, Humana, Merck, Nortel, P&G, and UBS.
Among ANI's projects is a deal with Healthways, a disease management company, to use social networks to improve wellness in the workplace. A pharmaceutical company is working with ANI to see how social networks can be used get physicians to adopt innovations and superior prescribing behaviors.
Christakis admits that he sees networks everywhere. "When I began studying networks, it was like I put on different glasses. I see how my actions affect others and their actions affect me."
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.