Sara Ost of Healthbolt and I Will Blog for Health

Sara Ost of Healthbolt and I Will Blog for Health

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted August 8, 2007 in DNA in General

honor rollGoing slightly off topic today, I want to look at the ethics and practice of health blogging. I first wrote about this two years ago at ProBlogger where I mentioned an “honor roll” I used to maintain of blogs which answered a series of questions posed by the the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine – 10 Things To Know About Evaluating Medical Resources on the Web.

As part of the pre-rounds interview for Grand Rounds, Dr. Nick Genes also touched upon ethics for medical bloggers asking:

If I recall, you were the first to propose an ethical code (honor roll) for medical bloggers. Did anything specific prompt that? Why do you think it hasn’t been widely adopted? How was your proposal
different from the HONcode, and the new initiative?

My response, which didn’t make the cut because of space limitations (so I talk a lot):

HONcode is great and I have always applied for my blogs but it really doesn’t require that bloggers reveal very much about themselves. When I started the Genetics and Health Honor Roll, I wasn’t intending to make it anything other than a full disclosure meme. I thought that if I could get some people to stop and think about what they were doing as well as making their motivations and qualifications public, it might up the credibility of healthcare blogging.

I was inspired to start the full disclosure meme when I came across blog after blog (healthcare and other) that didn’t fact check and were, in fact, spreading misinformation. In addition to that, I also don’t like bloggers who are hiding behind total anonymity. Why should I take the opinion of someone seriously if they’re using a pseudonym and won’t tell me anything about how they’ve gained their knowledge? Certainly, it’s within people’s rights to remain anonymous but at the very least, bloggers should show convincing evidence to their readers that they can trust the veracity of what they’re writing.

The new Healthcare Blogger Code of Ethics takes another stab at legitimizing healthcare blogging. It’s an honorable goal, and one to which I subscribe, but in the end, bloggers will still write what they want and must be responsible for it within the guidelines of their own situations. And that’s what blogging should be anyway – free expression with a pinch of thoughtful self-moderation.

boltAnd so, today I’d like to welcome guest blogger Sara Ost of Healthbolt. This prolific health blogger shares 7 Essential Steps for Non-Experts Blogging About Expert Things.

How can a blogger without the proper science or medical credentials provide a trustworthy (and worthy) resource for readers interested in health?

Hi, I’m Sara. I’m the editor of Mark’s Daily Apple, a quickly-growing alternative health blog with an irreverent tone, and Healthbolt, also decidedly irreverent and the top-ranked health ‘n body blog in the world. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, and in fact, the only science class I took in college was tropical biology in Costa Rica. Let’s just say I spent more time learning about the indigenous liquor (guaro) than anything scientific. Although I do remember that cashews are not related to other nuts and frogs are an indicator species. Still, that’s not very helpful.

I am trained as a writer, and for a year in graduate school, I paid the bills by researching and writing for a health show. It never took off from the pilot series, but the intensity of daily production was a good testing ground for the pace of blogging, and non-medical-expert me learned how to decipher even the most complicated medical studies. Within a few short weeks, I knew what murine trials were and I could rattle off the qualitative hierarchy of medical studies with the best of ‘em. Health bloggers needn’t be doctors, and they don’t even need to know their way around a medical study, but they do need to prove trustworthiness.

Though I’m obviously biased, I don’t think there is a problem with a non-expert blogging about expert matters, so long as we non-experts make that clear. You should do that with a visible disclaimer positioned in at least one place on your blog.

You should also write with passion, honesty and style – after all, that’s why your readers are reading you and not the medical studies (or another blog!). Spend two seconds at either of the blogs I write for and it’s apparent that I find value in humor and (on more caffeinated days) satire. That’s not for everyone, but the readers love it, and it immediately helps to establish that I’m not pretending to be an expert, while also offering them a unique experience.

I really cannot overstate the value of finding and establishing your own voice. Thousands of health blogs are really nothing more than tiresome retreads and summaries of the daily news (or worse, other blogs). You don’t read them, and neither do I. Most of these writers are not experts and many are poor writers. Be yourself – hone your writing craft and go no-holds-barred with your personality – and you’re guaranteed to stand out from the pack. Beyond that, it’s essential that you prove yourself to be trustworthy.

Here are my top tips for doing just that:

1. Participate in expert science and health blogs.

I’m not expecting anyone at the Science blogs to be impressed with my comments, so I tend to read from the sidelines, but it’s still important to know what the expert bloggers are saying. For example, I have learned a tremendous amount of information – both about science and blogging – from Dr. Lei and I comment on Eye on DNA when I know I’m not going to make a total fool of myself. Don’t annoy the experts, but at least follow along. They’re not likely to link to you (and can you blame them?) but participation is a good-faith act that shows you’re doing your best and making an effort.

Send relevant hat-tips when you find one. Give a good post a vote on Digg. Participation is what blogging is all about! So vary your blogroll, mix up those RSS feeds, and read a little bit of everything. Don’t avoid the “expert” science and health blogs because you haven’t any brilliant comments to add or can’t get a link from them. You’ll learn a lot, and that is what a good blogger seeks to do.

2. Learn the basics of medical studies.

Know the difference between an epidemiological study, a meta-analysis, a questionnaire-based study, reviews, and so forth. This is a snap to learn about. Here’s a primer from Consumer Health Journal. This knowledge does make a difference. Writing a blog post about the health benefits of cherries, but noting that these benefits were only determined in mice, can set you apart from the thousand health blogs proclaiming cherries as the next manna from heaven. Good bloggers don’t necessarily have to be original 100% of the time – otherwise you’d be a highly-paid journalist. But having a slightly different angle will at least separate you a bit from the echo chamber, and that’s commendable.

3. Read quality sources.

Joe Mercola may be a top-notch blogger, but an infallible source he’s not. Nor is Healthbolt, for that matter! Blogs almost always have a clear bias. That bothers many “real” journalists, but I happen to think that’s the wonderful thing about blogging (and I’m skeptical that journalism is without bias, anyway). While it’s important that you read and participate in your blogging niche, you must glean your actual information from authoritative sources. If you found a great study about the benefits of resistance exercise, link to the original source (you can always note that you found the information “via [x blog]” if you feel you ought to give the blogger credit).

Now, as a non-expert health blogger, you might not feel like delving into BMJ, JAMA, The Lancet and NEJM, but you should at least keep an eye on the latest headlines from PubMed and PloS. You may not agree with the government’s stance on medicine and nutrition, but you should keep abreast of the FDA’s frequent press releases and the daily highlights from the CDC and NIH websites as well. All of them are RSS-friendly so there’s no excuse! These updates are written for journalists, anyway, so they’re completely digestible and letting your readers know you follow them will enhance your trustworthiness as a blogger.

server linked4. Practice brave linking.

I’m all for linking to a provocative or interesting post of a fellow blogger, but it’s a good idea to offer a few links in such a post (and any post, for that matter) to some outside, reputable sources. Better yet, offer dissenting sources and let your readers decide. This isn’t about link-baiting; it’s about showing that you’ve got nothing to hide. You might share that you believe autism is caused by mercury in vaccines and link to a blogger who shares your view; but show your readers you stand by your position by including a link from the CDC on the latest thimerosal study that concludes just the opposite. This is a no-brainer way to establish your trustworthiness. Besides, blogging is all about putting your opinion out there, right or wrong – if you’re going to be a wallflower about it, why are you here?

5. Humbly and generously admit to being wrong.

Have a sense of humor and admit to being wrong. Update your posts if you learn something new. Tell your readers when you’ve goofed. Leave comments on other blogs when you find posts that challenge yours. I’m not recommending being a doormat – far from it. You are just as entitled to express your views about health as anyone else. But if you learn you’re wrong, be classy and publicly acknowledge it – in a comment, at your social network of choice, in a post, via an update. Being wrong is really a blessing anyway – it’s an opportunity to improve.

6. Just Say No to Wiki

Hsien posted a great piece about the problems with Wikipedia being used as a resource. For scientists and experts, W’ is fine, but we non-experts should be using more reputable sources – preferably something published in a journal of record. The alternative is doing the requisite digging to ascertain the correctness of a Wiki entry, but who wants to do that? Now, here’s a lazy shortcut I often take: I use Wiki as a starting point, but I scroll down to the sources listed and choose the most trustworthy. Thanks for doing the work for me, Wikipedia! ;)

7. Reference before you rant!

In a nutshell, show that you’ve done more than click Google News or siphoned off a big blog. You don’t have to give a dissertation or list five hundred links, but toss something in there somewhere! Give credit generously – to bloggers, to Flickr members whose photos you use, to forums where you first got the bug for an idea, and of course, to yourself (for prior related posts). Don’t undermine your credibility and aggravate your readers (especially those expert bloggers who may be reading you more than you realize) by leaving out a reference. Link to at least one source in every post. (Kick-ass blogging reminder: go one better and list a second source. The second source should disagree with you or at least offer a different angle.) No one is expecting you to be the definitive answer to all things health, and you’re guaranteed to piss a few people off now and then (if you aren’t you’re probably doing something wrong), but never fail to prove yourself credible.

Then rant, rave, preach, proselytize, and sling those anecdotes to your heart’s content! You’ve made it clear you aren’t an expert, you’ve done your best to include reputable references, and the blog is your oyster.

What have you observed about health bloggers and their practices?

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Comment by Berci Meskó

Excellent tips, but not just for non-experts! Do you know when it becomes interesting? When you’re between the two states… just like a medical student. You’re not an expert, so you have to be very cautious regarding what you write, but you are not a non-expert, because you’ve worked/learnt so much.

Anyway, thanks for the great tips. :)

Comment by Hsien

I’m impressed you read through it all! ;) Thanks for the nice comment.

Comment by NA Subscribed to comments via email

I started a blog myself for a few weeks. I ended up shutting the blog down as some graduate students thought my topics of interest were “odd” and I seemed odd myself. I don’t see how you can call “how your genes relate to your health,” “the ins-and-outs of genetic testing,” “health insurance in relation to genetic information,” “wrongful birth,” and so many other topics odd? Oh well!

One must be cautious when reading blogs. There are only two blogs that I read. I use to read several blogs related to the field of genetics, but only two blogs stand out worth reading on a daily basis.

Comment by Hsien

What a shame! I’m sure your blog would have been as thoughtful and interesting as your comments here. So what are the two blogs you read regularly? I hope Eye on DNA is one of them! :)

Comment by Hsien

FYI, I just submitted this post to ProBlogger’s 31 Days to Build a Better Blog.

Pingback by links for 2007-08-10 Subscribed to comments via email

[...] Sara Ost of Healthbolt’s 7 Essential Steps for Non-Experts Blogging About Expert Things Participate in expert science and health blogs—-learn the basics of medical studies—-read quality sources—practice brave linking—-humbing admit you were wrong—-be wary of Wiki—reference before ranting. [...]


[...] Sara Ost of Healthbolt and I Will Blog for Health by Hsien-Hsien Lei, PhD [...]


[...] Sara Ost of Healthbolt and I Will Blog for Health by Hsien-Hsien Lei, PhD [...]


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