Sona Mehring Connects Mississippians to Patients Enduring Serious Health Crises
In 1997, Sona Mehring’s dear friend, whose high-risk pregnancy resulted in the delivery of a very pre-mature baby, asked her to keep friends and family posted about the infant’s health status. Instead of placing a series of emotionally-draining and time-consuming phone calls, Mehring created a website that now daily connects a half million people and annually more than 43 million.
“The same night their baby, Brighid, was born, the first CaringBridge site was born,” said Mehring, CEO of CaringBridge, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. “CaringBridge instantly became a connection point in ways that were extremely personal and powerful for everyone. The site allowed family members to communicate information to a wide circle of people. They posted daily journal entries and the guestbook enabled visitors to send the family messages of love and encouragement.”
Mississippians embraced CaringBridge long before official partnership agreements were signed with three facilities—AseraCare Hospice in Senatobia, Bolivar Medical Center in Cleveland, and North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo—where staff members, usually nurses, make a practice of recommending CaringBridge to their patients to ease the burden of overwhelming phone calls with family and friends.
“It was obvious that CaringBridge could help any family going through a serious health challenge, not only by letting everyone know what was happening, but by bringing that loving, supportive community together,” said Mehring, a webpage designer who worked on the project as a side job for five years before devoting full-time attention to it. “CaringBridge could let them be there without the barrier of when, where and how.”
CaringBridge is the only nonprofit service that provides free, personal, private websites specifically designed for people to communicate with their network of family and friends during a health challenge. The oldest and most widely used service of its kind, nearly 2 billion visits have been made to personal CaringBridge websites in all 50 states and more than 225 countries worldwide since it was created 14 years ago—before Facebook existed!
According to a 2010 survey of more than 4,000 CaringBridge users, 99 percent of patient respondents said that reading the guestbook on their CaringBridge site positively impacted their health journey; 91 percent of “visitors” indicated that writing in the site’s journal had a similar effect; and 88 percent said that staying connected via CaringBridge positively impacted their healing process.
An interesting tidbit concerning medical providers: 93 percent of respondents rated the quality of their healthcare as “good” or “excellent.”
“Through the recommendation of a personal health social networking site, Mississippi medical groups can more holistically treat patients–body, mind and soul,” said Mehring.
CaringBridge, which solicits charitable donations, is poised for expedited growth. Of the 10,000 U.S. residents who are daily diagnosed with cancer and experience a premature birth or serious injury, only 200 create a CaringBridge site.
“The gap in serving all 10,000 people is primarily caused by them not knowing CaringBridge is available to them, for free, to help make their health journey easier,” said Mehring.
As part of multiple strategies to ensure more families are aware of CaringBridge, Mehring partners with more than 500 hospitals and health systems and nearly 100 nonprofit health-based organizations that work directly with patients and families who might benefit from the service. In Mississippi, which has some 57,000 registered users, she would like to boost the number of partnership agreements statewide.
“It’s vital that anyone going through a serious health challenge knows about CaringBridge,” said Mehring, who added blogging platforms that serve as support groups for patients, family and friends to better understand particular health challenges and to lessen feelings of isolation and uncertainty through shared experiences. Before registered users create blogs, they’re given a quick 411 on privacy levels on their sites, such as how to completely block their content from search engines or host an open site.
Next step: Mehring, who was recently named among Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology, is integrating the site with Facebook and other social networks to “ensure that we’re early adopters of technology.”