Blogs are no blip

Are blogs just fads, or can they play an important role in opening government to the public?

Health Marketing Musings

According to the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Internet users go online for health information. They easily find opinions — informed, ill-informed and otherwise — about diseases, experimental treatments, diets and exercise on the scores of blogs popping up all over the Web.

Blogs, short for Web logs, are part of the new wave of social media tools  that Wikipedia, MySpace and Facebook made popular. They are now starting to make inroads into the business world.

Estimates differ on the number of people using such tools to find health information. But if blogs are any indicator, the health care industry — often accused of lagging behind the rest of the business world — may now be in the forefront in the use of information technology.

Health care blogs are sprouting up with names like Genetics and Health, Trusted.MD, the Health Care Blog and Diabetes Mine. They typically link to other health care blogs, forming a loose network of shared information that might or might not stand up to inspection by the American Medical Association.

“We’re entering an era where blogs have become the new credible source of health information because much of it is coming from people like yourself,” said Craig Lefebvre, a visiting professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services and a consultant to several federal health agencies. “But just like with early Web sites, we will go through a process of sorting out the quality from less quality blogs.”

Lefebvre said blogging is an example of the wisdom of crowds. Writer James Surowiecki popularized the notion that large groups of semi-informed people will be right more often than even the most educated individuals will be.

Even so, most health care bloggers are simply patients and friends trying to help others. For someone suffering from a specific disease, a blog can offer insights and personal experiences that doctors can’t always provide.

“Blogs are another way to get communication out about health topics,” Lefebvre said. “They allow a more conversational voice in the way you present information.”

Mashing health content
Health care bloggers often focus on their professional interests. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest health care blogs meld IT with health care content. Examples include the Healthcare IT Guy, HIStalk, Medical Connectivity Consulting and HITSphere, an aggregator of other health IT blogs.

Physicians, nurses, scientists and ambulance drivers can be found among the latest health care bloggers. And although most of the blogs do not try to dispense direct medical advice, quite a few address issues pertinent to specific medical or scientific specialties. 

For example, editors of the blog Effect Measure are public health scientists and practitioners. To shield their identities from the public health community and allow maximum freedom of expression, they sign their posts “Revere.” Paul Revere was a member of the first local board of health in the United States, established in Boston in 1799.

Although experts agree that health professionals learn from talking to one another, most physicians were not early blog adopters. Many of them believe that trusted information can only come from peer-reviewed studies or highly skilled colleagues — not from anonymous or untested sources.

Linking science and policy
Nevertheless, many argue that health care bloggers have a valuable role to play, especially where science and public policy meet.

“Blogs are tremendously useful because they are written by skilled consultants whose viewpoints were not accessible before,” said Matthew Holt, a researcher who worked with health care companies before launching his own consulting practice and the Health Care Blog.

“Health care is a major political issue, and the informed commentary of blogs will ultimately impact mainstream thinking,” Holt said. “Blogs create a bridge between academics and health services and spill marketplace knowledge back into the health care community.”

He cited the Health Business Blog, Health Care Renewal and Managed Care Matters as examples of popular health care business blogs.

Feds enter the fray
At least one federal health agency is officially stepping into the world of blogs. Jay Bernhardt, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Marketing, said he uses a blog as another way to reach people who are leaving traditional media behind.

“New media will absolutely change how health information is produced, exchanged, packaged and consumed,” Bernhardt wrote in his blog, Health Marketing Musings. “For those of us working in governmental health communication and marketing at all levels, a fundamental challenge we all face is how to balance the old with the new.”

Bernhardt’s blog is directed to professionals in the emerging field of health marketing communications. “Blogs are informal and personal,” he said. “Those of us in health marketing find blogs [as] a powerful way of communicating information.”

CDC has made it a priority to capitalize on new media and social media to improve health, he added. “Public health is behind in using information technology to engage consumers,” Bernhardt said. “New media presents a golden opportunity to skip straight to the cutting edge.”

MySpace models
Several attempts are now under way to create more sophisticated forms of health care social networking, similar to the MySpace model in which users can collaborate more actively online. One of the earliest attempts to create a more robust health care media platform is Trusted.MD, founded by Dmitriy Kruglyak. He said he believes “social media is the next-generation marketplace for health care.”

Kruglyak said he is trying to define how health care organizations should go about adopting social media and the role social media can play in improving health care. The purpose of blogs, he added, is to accelerate adoption of best practices, reach health care consumers with important information on diseases or health issues, and foster the exchange of information.

“I see health care following what other industries have already done,” Kruglyak said. “Social media has changed the communication and economics of their businesses.”

He said Trusted.MD offers a structured way for health care organizations to use social media.

Still, some experts question whether blogs can thrive in the government arena given the challenges of managing such a volatile medium.

“Blogs are growing, maturing, changing — just like the first wave of Web sites,” said David Ritter, chairman of the Labor and Employment Practice Group of the Chicago-based law firm Neal Gerber Eisenberg, which advises companies on social media practices. “The health care industry will catch up. But it has to stop being hesitant about dipping a toe into the social media area.”

Bernhardt agreed. “Health-related blogs are in their infancy and in the early stages of diffusion of information,” he said. “While certain segments are reaching saturation for blogs, health care is at the beginning of something that will expand.”

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and
private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics. She can be reached at
judywelles@1105govinfo.com.

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