It started as a whisper and then grew to a roar. Last year, the Detroit Free Press wrote the first in what would become series of articles questioning the wisdom of medical blogging. In 2007 and 2008, USA Today and National Public Radio featured stories that noted the benefits of physician blogging, but also highlighted patient privacy and legal concerns associated with this activity. Finally, early last month, the Los Angeles Times and other publications featured a study that has generated a lot of heated commentary in the blogosphere and beyond.
In an analysis of medical blogs published in the July 23rd edition of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Tara Lagu suggested that some doctor bloggers are painting an unflattering picture of the medical profession and fail to disclose financial conflicts. Lagu cited a 2006 poll produced by my firm Envision Solutions and the social network Trusted.MD indicating that public relations professionals approached nearly one-third of health bloggers responding to the survey. Lagu recently told American Medical News that she believes medical associations should “adopt policies explicitly addressing blogging ethics.”
While it is appropriate to raise concerns about the ethics associated with medical blogging, the negative commentary surrounding it underemphasizes its many benefits and obscures the true diversity of the health blogosphere. For example, a 2008 iCrossing study indicates that 49% of respondents view blogs and other online content as valuable resources when seeking information about prescription medications. A recent analysis by my firm Envision Solutions reveals that 13% of adult Americans would turn to provider-developed blogs and other sites first if they believed they had a medical condition or disease.
It is also important to note that medical professionals no longer dominate the health blogosphere. In recent years, policy wonks, patients, consultants, multinational corporations and others have joined it.
We need to elevate the conversation about health blogging and actively marshal the facts so that we can have an informed and nuanced conversation about its benefits and drawbacks.
New Report Paints Detailed Portrait Of The Health Blogosphere
Today, Envision Solutions released a new report that provides the most detailed portrait of the health blogopshere to date. According to a national survey we commissioned, the U.S. adult health blogging population currently stands at 13.6 million. (We defined health bloggers as people writing on blogs where at least at least 50% of posts focus on health-related topics.) In addition, the majority of health bloggers are female and 38% are either African American or Hispanic.
The report also features an updated version of the global health care blogger online survey Envision Solutions and Trusted.MD released in 2006. (About 77% of respondents were from the U.S.) We found that the number of bloggers reporting they write anonymously sharply decreased in 2007. This drop was fueled by the changing blogging habits of physicians, as fewer said they hide their identity when they blog.
Marketing activity taking place in the health blogosphere has increased. For example, the number of bloggers reporting inquiries from public relations professionals jumped 57% between 2006 and 2007. Also, respondents were more likely to report running advertising on their Weblogs.
Of course, these marketing trends will be cause for concern for some. However there is evidence many bloggers are operating ethically. Most respondents view statements by their peers critically. Yet the majority have great confidence health bloggers routinely disclose apparent and implied conflicts of interest.
Overall, these two studies indicate that the state of the health blogosphere is strong. Millions of Americans are writing health blogs. In addition, many are operating ethically. To learn more about the evolving health blogosphere, please click here.
Fard Johnmar is founder of healthcare marketing communications consultancy Envision Solutions, LLC. He also writes about social technologies, health and other topics on the popular blog HealthCareVox.