Are Medical Blogs Important? Survey Says…

Colin T. Son

Disclosures

May 12, 2009

In a nondescript hospital somewhere, an attending physician -- bald, not quite as spry as he once was -- sits down at a computer and does something that he could not have imagined 35 years ago in medical school. He pulls up PubMed or eMedicine, or perhaps the Website of a specialty medical society. He is interested in Bartter syndrome because one of his patients suffers from it and is taking a nontraditional treatment. Within 5 minutes he is informed and ready to address his patient's questions.

The medical community is lucky. As the amount of information on diseases and their treatments has expanded, so has the way in which that information is disseminated. And with an increasing emphasis on evidence-based medicine, current information has become a necessity for everyone in healthcare. In fact, the ability to access health information is increasingly viewed as a determinant of health systems' efficiency and quality of care.

That is a message espoused by Drs. Ivor Kovic and Ileana Lulic, 2 emergency medicine physicians who manage Health Blogs Observatory, an "online research lab devoted to examination of the health blogosphere." The Website is essentially a repository for all health blogs, and the site managers intend to use that database to survey bloggers and learn more about medical blogging:

Our goals are important, because health blogs are important. They have the power to influence medical and health policy and such research could help us to better utilize them for the enhancement of teaching and learning productivity, advancements in scientific research, and support for continuing medical and patient education.

I recently corresponded with these 2 Croatian physicians to learn more about their endeavors.

Colin Son: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: Our backgrounds are quite similar. We finished at the same medical school, Rijeka School of Medicine in Croatia. Apart from medicine, information technology was our biggest passion. During our medical studies we started to collaborate with people from the Department of Medical Informatics and got our first taste of scientific research. Since those early days, we have made substantial progress and are now both working on our doctoral theses in the field of medical informatics. At the same time, we never moved far away from clinical medicine and are currently both working as emergency physicians in the ambulance service.

Health Blogs Observatory hosts Grand Rounds
May 12, 2009


Colin Son: How would you define "medical informatics," and how has it changed with the advent of the Internet?

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: We could say that medical informatics is the intersection of information science and medicine. There are numerous well-put definitions out there from the pioneers of this field. However, one can observe that definitions are evolving just as the whole field does; there is still no consensus. In our opinion, the essence of medical informatics is a special way of thinking. You don't need a computer to do medical informatics! This never changes, so we can say that the Internet did not change the definition of medical informatics.

Colin Son: What are the benefits of open, publicly provided health information such as what's available on the Internet?

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: We think there are many benefits -- probably more benefits than there are drawbacks. The first and most important is accessibility. Knowledge is power, and the fact that with the touch of a button you can access it is incredible. Information in the hands of patients is not something physicians should fear. Unfortunately, there still is a lot of valuable data buried in people's drawers. We say, publish it, get it out there; who knows what fantastic things somebody else can do with it? Great examples are mashups, integrations of data from many sources, that people create. Just take a look at the latest example of the swine flu epidemic where people have created these useful maps of its spread.

The second thing is speed and flexibility. Blogs, with their fast information processing, are a perfect example. If you want to follow a certain medical topic today and be really up-to-date, you should most definitely follow a few good blogs specialized in that topic.

Colin Son: In contrast, what are the benefits of expert-centric models of disseminating health information, such as medical journals or even the doctor-patient relationship?

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: Of course, expert-controlled models like journals still have the most authority. Medicine is, after all, very specialized and requires years of education and training. The peer-review process is not perfect, but it is by far the best that we have for now. Maybe the future lies somewhere in the middle. We have seen people from the Journal of Medical Internet Research experiment with such models, where they put certain submitted articles, along with expert review, to public review.

Colin Son: Do you use the Internet in your medical practice as emergency physicians? If so, how?

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: We have in many ways become addicted to the Internet, and our medical practice is no exception. We use it for education, research, and communication. A very banal example is when we had a patient from Germany who was unconscious. In the patient's wallet we managed to find a list of medications, but they were the registered names used in Germany, which were not familiar to us. A quick search of the Internet revealed the generic names, so we were able to figure out what medication this patient was using and subsequently from which conditions the patient was suffering. This was done in 5 minutes and had a significant impact on the patient's care.

However, we feel that this is not nearly enough and that we are still underutilizing the Internet, especially the social media. There is still a lot of work ahead of us to figure out how to best use these great tools.

Colin Son: What will it take to achieve more widespread adoption of such technologies across the healthcare field?

Drs. Kovic and Lulic: No change comes easy, especially to physicians who have been doing things a certain way for ages. New data and new scientific research are also needed to demonstrate the benefits of social technologies and the Internet in the healthcare field that we all know are there. Eventually everything will fall into place; it has to. And we have to admit that we really do see some positive changes in our environment already.

This week, Health Blogs Observatory hosts Grand Rounds. In a sense, Grand Rounds is itself an intersection of the information age and healthcare. The weekly online collection features favorite posts from a host of individuals involved in medicine, from physicians to nurses to patients and others. Check out what Drs. Kovic and Lulic have put together as they take a break from their studies to host visitors from the medical blogosphere.

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