Saturday, January 19, 2008

Blogging Public Health and Medicine

This is the third breakout session today in the blogging conference.

I'm interested in this session mainly because I'm a scientist by training, working in a translational research lab.  I want to make sure that anything that I publish isn't misconstrued, misinterpreted or taken to have more credence than I actually have.

One of the major issues with blogging public health issues is making sure not to harm anyone's right to privacy for their medical history.  That being said, it has been shown that providing human perspective in blogging has a major impact on how much people are willing to relate and trust you as a writer.  In the area of medically relevant blogging these two extremes have to be balanced.  At this boundery, the UNC public health department released a study that showed that where you get your medically relevent information matters, and personal histories make them more convincing than statistics.  This is hard for me to swallow as a scientist, but it's a pill I'll have to handle.

One thing to be sure you understand while blogging is of course the audience.  One commenter in this session specifically asked what was the education level of people who use science blogs?  what is the true audience?  And most importantly how does that affect the language we as science bloggers use?  As mentioned above, this is a balancing act of knowing your audience as you would want it, and finding the audience that you have when discussing medically relevant information.

Most important to this whole discussion is of course patient rights, and making sure that our readers get the best information possible, while understanding we are not giving them medical advice.  At this point HIPAA was discussed as a way to protect patient information.  As an MD blogging this is a huge issue.  Disclaimers (such as on kevinmd) are a way to get out of this, but this is a huge concern.  Also something to be aware of is that people who receive federal funds for research are also subject to other releases.  While personal stories are some of the most compelling ways to write, one must manage those releases and keeps privacy.

Another issue that was raised was how does journalism for medical and public health news get generated.  One of the major focuses is the actual news cycles.  This reaches a saturation point, however, and you can only write about some topics so much.  Turning the middle of flu season, you do still have to write about other issues.  An example was that from Duke Medical Center the two top issues in the recent months have been the following: a finding that human appendix may have a purpose, and that cancer doctors not as empathetic with their patients as they think they are.  What are people interested in?  High wow factor.  Sex.  Obesity.  As a journalist you must pitch to your editor - and by extension, your audience.

Lastly, when doing medical health blogging one should also be sure to be aware of persons with disabilities and their access of information.  What to do about this? The W3C has plenty of information.  A brief 5 points of high interest are:
  • use straight HTML / XHTML... don't use extra stuff
  • tag your images - caption them if you can't tag them
  • structure your documents so that they are heads
  • don't put up proprietary documents - such as pdf's
    • this allows people to search and share documents easier
  • images makes things much harder to process - keep them limited and simple:
Here are some links to some checkers that you can use to help ensure that you're blog isn't going to cause problems for persons with disabilities:
  • www.webaim.org - the wave - this program physically shows you were the problems are
  • cynthia says - this is through icdri, and is for more advanced users

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