Legion of Honor

EHealth pioneer Denise Silber ’74 to be awarded France’s highest decoration

by Christina Barber-Just

For Denise Silber ’74, attending Smith meant she had one big thing in common with Julia McWilliams Child  ’34. Now, make that two. Almost Denise Silberexactly a decade after Child received the French Legion of Honor—the highest decoration bestowed by France—Silber has received the same award. In April 2011, she became a chevalier, or knight, in the order. “I am amazed to suddenly share a second distinction with Julia Child,” Silber says. “However, my cooking is not likely to be recognized anytime soon.”
Silber’s recognition stems not from culinary prowess but from Web savvy, specifically as it relates to health. A Harvard MBA and former pharmaceutical manager, Silber says she’s been involved in eHealth since 1995, “managing the creation of the first medical Websites in France and participating in the many working groups on the theme of quality and ethics on the Web.” She established the Association for the Quality of Health Internet Sites (AQIS) in 2008 and is the founder of Basil Strategies, a Paris-based “eHealth eMarketing consultancy.” Here she discusses her impending knighthood.
Why were you recognized by the French Legion of Honor?
For my work in promoting the use of the Internet and new technologies in health care, and in particular as a link (trait d’union) between France, Europe, and the United States. This last part is as important as the first, because the award is from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The recognition is coming now because you have to work at least twenty years to receive the Legion of Honor. And last year my company co-organized the first international conference in Paris regarding the use of Web 2.0 tools and social media for health care with 500 attendees from over a dozen countries.
As a self-described “American in Paris,” what does it mean to you to receive France’s highest honor?
The feeling is simply amazing, and for many reasons: 1) it is exceptional for a foreign person to receive the Legion of Honor; 2) that the French foreign ministry would recognize the importance of health on the Internet is very gratifying; 3) that the award is honoring the French and American link—the relation between France and the United States is an intrinsic part of my adult life; 4) the warm reaction of everyone around me has been so wonderful.
Where will the award ceremony take place?
Given the French/American tie, I’ve been authorized by the American Embassy to organize the ceremony in one of their buildings, the newly renamed George C. Marshall Center. The Marshall Center is in the Hotel de Talleyrand from the 18th century, a beautiful former mansion used by the Rothschild family and located right off the Place de la Concorde heading to the Tuileries. The rooms are amazing from the photos I’ve seen. It is reserved for ceremonies involved in French-American diplomacy. And it so happens that my first job after Smith was as a US Foreign Service Officer. I was sent to Washington for basic training and then shipped off to Mexico City for a series of assignments that lasted almost three years before I went on to do a Harvard MBA. So the location adds incredibly to the significance of the award. Also, I’ve attended many embassy events over the years, and even more since the arrival of Ambassador Rivkin and his wife, Susan Tolson ’84.
What originally brought you to France?
I discovered a passion for France and Paris during January break of sophomore year when I visited Europe for the first time in my life to “test it out” before junior year abroad in Geneva. I joined other Smith students for a drive from Switzerland to Morocco and back via Spain and France. Quite a first trip! Then I went off to see some people I knew in Paris for four days and was hooked. Of course, I didn’t actually get to live in Paris during junior year in Geneva, except for six weeks of studying at Reid Hall. I really came to live in Paris five years after graduation, when my first post-MBA job with a pharmaceutical company brought me here. I’ve been living here ever since, except for a brief period when I returned to New York “for good” to work on eHealth at a time when the Internet was not really advancing in France. However, I came back to Paris! It doesn’t have its equivalent.
You founded Basil Strategies, which is described as an “eHealth eMarketing consultancy.” What does that mean, and what does the company do?
We help health-care companies and organizations develop their digital identity through tailored training programs, participating in our conferences, and utilizing our strategic recommendations and innovative tools and services.
Can you explain “eHealth” and “Health 2.0” in layperson’s terms?
EHealth is the digital component of health care—all of the tools that enable medical information in the broadest sense (images and data) to be shared anytime, anyplace. The term should disappear as the use of information technologies becomes pervasive. Health 2.0 refers to collaborative tool—tools that facilitate the sharing of user-generated content. This collaboration can be among professionals, patients or shared between professionals and patients.
You co-organized the “2010 Health 2.0 Europe” conference, and you are organizing an upcoming conference called “Doctors 2.0 & You.” What is the goal of these events?
The goal of these events is to create a critical mass to move the movement forward faster. Thanks to the Internet, the excitement around the conference begins to build up months before the event and continues on for some time afterward. These events generate blog posts and Facebook and Twitter updates. People network and wind up with new ideas, jobs, partnerships. All of this happened in 2010 and will happen again in 2011. This year, our focus is on the physician’s perspective. And people are very interested. For a number of years, we’ve been discussing the patient’s interest and not spending enough time to understand what the doctor is doing. So, while there are many Internet conferences, our topic is original.
How do you envision the future intersection of health and technology?
Scientific publications indicating that computers are necessary for a good health system have existed since 1960, so this is not a revolution by any means. But technology has had to become easier. The big leap forward occurred thanks to the Web, but even that took around ten years to become common. Prices had to go down. People had to get used to it. In the next few years, mobile applications for health care will be taking the lead, making it possible to distribute personal health records, to provide geolocators so that you can find an appropriate health-care professional wherever you are, and to facilitate tele-consultation services. Beyond mobile devices, computing will be ubiquitous and no longer require that you carry a specific object.