In an era when almost any type of information can be found on the Internet and cybertalk is all the rage, blogging seems a natural and increasingly popular progression of mass communication. And pathologists are taking advantage of its growing appeal.
Pathologist bloggers view their Internet postings, or blogs, as an alternative to more traditional ways of communicating knowledge, interests, and opinions about the medical field with colleagues, other health care professionals, and medical students who may be next door or thousands of miles away. What’s more, even technophobes can set up a blog.
Online vendors offer simple instructions and templates for getting started in as little as a matter of minutes and at minimal, if any, expense. Using Google’s Blogger publishing tool, pathologists can establish a site at no charge. And they can contract with a vendor to host a blog site, or provide the bandwidth necessary to keep the site online, for about $10 to $15 a month. Some vendors even offer free trial periods so bloggers can test the waters before committing to a hosting fee.
The bloggers interviewed by CAP TODAY generally post on a regular basis, from daily to a couple of times a week, devoting a few hours a week to the task. They say the key to creating a successful blog is consistently posting text others find worthwhile so the blog gains a regular following. And that’s what takes time.
It took about a year for the digital pathology blog (www.tissuepathology.typepad.com) of Keith Kaplan, MD, to acquire an established audience. When Dr. Kaplan, associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., started the blog in July 2007, he simply reposted interesting content from other sources, including newspapers and journals. What he learned over time is that while readers find this filtering function useful, they prefer to read the blogger’s own ideas. So Dr. Kaplan began including his opinion about the material he was posting.
Today Dr. Kaplan’s blog attracts approximately 900 readers daily, including students, residents, anatomic and clinical pathologists, and other laboratory professionals. “It’s certainly not for everyone,” says Dr. Kaplan, who admits that when veteran pathology blogger Bruce Friedman, MD, encouraged him to start a blog, he thought the activity would be a waste of time because no one would read it. Dr. Kaplan soon found, however, that he liked seeing his thoughts published. He continued writing the blog because he believed he had something worthwhile to say, and, although it took a while, others came to agree. “The deliverables are there if you want to exert the effort,” he says.
Because they are inexpensive to maintain, blogs have the potential to pay for themselves, but don’t bank on it. Brian Moore, MD, proudly displays on his wall the $107 check he received from Google last August. The money represents about a year’s worth of advertising revenue from his neuropathology blog (www.neuropathologyblog.blogspot.com) generated through Google’s advertising program, AdSense, which matches advertisers with appropriate Web sites. Through AdSense, the owner of the blog earns money, say a nickel, each time someone clicks on an ad that appears on that site.
“I certainly can’t quit my day job doing this,” says Dr. Moore, clinical assistant professor of pathology and neurology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield, Ill., who started his blog in 2007. But while blogging may not be financially rewarding, it is intellectually stimulating, he says.
Dr. Kaplan’s blog as well links to a handful of pathology-related companies. Dr. Kaplan uses the sponsorship revenue generated from the links to support educational initiatives in pathology informatics. Dr. Kaplan has received financial offers from other companies wanting to link their sites to his blog, but he’s not sure he wants to pursue such offers because they don’t tie into the purpose of his blog—to educate the pathology community about digital pathology.
“I think blogging is a sort of labor of love,” Dr. Kaplan says. Dr. Moore concurs. The social aspect of interacting with those who comment on his posts enriches the content, Dr. Moore explains. “Now I feel a little bit of an obligation to do it because I know people read it. If I go a week without posting, I get a comment like, ‘What happened to you?’”
New blogger Mark Pool, MD, who began The Daily Sign-Out (www.pathlabmed.typepad.com) in January, also finds the act of blogging to be per-sonally rewarding. Blogging forces him to present information on a particular topic, such as a review of colon cancer stem cell theory, clearly and concisely—“crystallizing it into something you could explain to somebody in five minutes.”
Dr. Pool, attending pathologist and laboratory medical director at Riverside Medical Center, Kankakee, Ill., considers such condensed writing, generally a few short paragraphs, a vast improvement over today’s academic writing, which he finds boring. “I read a lot of different journals and, frankly, most of them are just not that well written,” he says. “They use the same type of hackneyed ways of writing things. I look at a lot of it as not being worth reading.”
Dr. Pool also views blogging as an avenue for networking with other pathologists. He met Dr. Kaplan through his (Dr. Pool’s) blog, and the two are now working on an abstract for an upcoming medical information technology conference. “That’s what I hope comes out of this—making connections with other people,” Dr. Pool says.
While the upsides to blogging are numerous, there are a few downsides. For example, finding the time to post on a regular basis can be problematic, especially for busy pathology residents.
Kenneth Youens, MD, had to terminate a blog that he and a fellow resident started a few years ago because neither had time to post. In February, Dr. Youens, who is co-chief resident in the Department of Pathology at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, brought the blog (http://pathtalk.org) back online using a different modus operandi. Dr. Youens believes the solution is to share the workload by having multiple authors who post whenever they feel like it—“whenever they have something interesting they want to show that might not be good enough for a journal article but still is fun to share.” Among the more than 10 pathologists participating in Dr. Youens’ blog are Drs. Kaplan, Friedman, and Moore.
Blogging can be addictive, says Dr. Pool, who limits his daily blogging to 20 minutes. If he can’t complete an entry in that time, he stops and works on the posting the next day. Otherwise, he says, he probably would blog for hours at a time. “That’s the problem, I think: Once you get started, it’s hard to stop.”
As interest in blogging grows, so does its influence. Dr. Friedman believes blogging will find its own niche, not in place of, but next to other more formal sources of information, such as academic journals. He says the practice is taken more seriously now than when he first began blog-ging in December 2005. Dr. Friedman’s blog (www.labsoftnews.com) has a weekly readership of about 4,000 people.
“I believe my blog affords me a greater opportunity to disseminate new ideas than my academic writing,” says Dr. Friedman, active emeritus professor of pathology at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor. “I think the key is understanding that all these different communication vehicles have a place.”
Dr. Friedman adds that he probably would continue to blog even if he had no readership because it forces him to review “a wide swath of news covering lab information technology, the clinical lab industry, and health care in general, which I then blog about. Blogging,” he adds, “has allowed me to climb out of this very focused academic silo.”
Dr. Friedman often integrates ideas generated in his blog notes into his lectures, which he can write in about a third of the time it used to take him because he’s so familiar with the material. “I feel that blogging is an important intellectual exercise,” he says. “I’m benefiting from them [my blogs] and my readers, I assume, are benefiting from them.”
While there are no official blogging rules, there are some important guidelines to keep in mind when writing a professional blog. For example, it’s necessary to post regularly so your audience doesn’t dwindle, Dr. Friedman says. He advises new bloggers to think of readers as people relaxing at their desks for a few minutes with a cup of coffee—they want a quick review of breaking news accompanied by brief comments about its relevance.
“For the most part, brevity trumps long, tedious, ponderous notes,” he adds. “So you have to be somewhat irreverent—you have to have a kind of light feel, but with a powerful message. In this way, bloggers act as filters and disseminators of important information and viewpoints.”
The best way to get started is simply to jump in and do it, say the pathology bloggers interviewed by CAP TODAY. Don’t worry about what it will look like or being able to change the format, they advise—all that will come with time.
Pathologists, in general, should embrace blogging as part of the whole Web 2.0 movement, says Dr. Moore, referring to the technology that enables professional and social networking tools, like blogs, to exist. “Once they do embrace it,” he continues, “they’ll see the benefits of it in terms of creating a global community of pathologists who can learn from each other.”
Karen Wagner is a freelance writer in Forest Lake, Ill.