Blogs are quickly evolving from a niche medium to a powerful communication tool used by the likes of the mainstream media and politicians. So isn't it about time the government adopted blogs?
HHS last week became one of the first government agencies to create a blog about a specific issue when it launched a five-week project, called the Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog, in which leaders from health care, business and the community will contribute weekly entries based on specific questions selected by HHS. The department on June 13 will host a Pandemic Influenza Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., and the blog is meant to correspond with that event.
Stephanie Marshall, director of pandemic communications in HHS' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, said the department started the blog to broaden the reach of the meeting. She said that HHS "found that there was a lot of activity and dialogue taking place online about this topic," which Marshall said is somewhat surprising, particularly as the flu pandemic issue has "slipped from the headlines" in traditional media sources.
According to Marshall, HHS found that individuals from a variety of backgrounds were online sharing ideas and information about preparing the country, individuals and families for a possible pandemic. HHS thought the blog could involve a much larger population in the discussion by enlisting the help of contributors that could reach not just health care experts and policymakers, but regular consumers as well.
At the end of June, the blog will be archived online, but HHS hopes to continue the dialogue and to use the blog as a way to discuss other topics related to pandemic influenza, Marshall said.
Meet the Bloggers
HHS identified potential bloggers by searching online and contacting individuals -- both bloggers and nonbloggers, health care professionals and otherwise -- who had shown an interest in flu pandemic through their involvement with either flu-related blogs or just by participating in online forums.
Greg Dworkin -- chief of Pediatric Pulmonology and Medical Director of the Pediatric Inpatient Unit at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut and founding editor of the Web sites Flu Wiki and Flu Wiki Forum -- is one of the approximately 16 people blogging for HHS. Dworkin, who calls himself a "big supporter of personal preparedness," said that using blogs to disseminate public health information is "an interesting melding of different worlds."
Dworkin, who has been blogging since about 2003, said that working with public health organizations on creative ways to use blogs to relay health information is an attempt to close the information gap between the public and health care institutions.
As a physician with a flu Web site, Dworkin seems like a natural fit for the HHS blog project, but the project also includes individuals who do not work in health care but have an interest in health care issues. For example, Albert Ruesga -- who for about two years has maintained a personal blog, White Courtesy Telephone -- does not work in the health care field, but he agreed to participate in the HHS blog because he said he thought that "the more people that were out there talking about the issue, the more people there would be who would hear the message and heed it."
However, he said he doubts that the HHS blog project will be embraced universally. "I assume HHS will be criticized by some and praised by others, just like any other public effort," Ruesga said.
While the blog will be operational only for a brief period, Ruesga said that the blog's short lifespan will not hinder its effectiveness. "The idea of there being some sort of concentrated campaign to raise awareness makes sense," he said.
Ruesga, who focuses his personal blog on issues affecting the not-for-profit and foundation sectors, said he thinks he was asked by HHS to blog in an effort to get a more broad representation of different kinds of sectors. Ruesga, who said that blogs are a "very good place to meet people who are thoughtful," said he felt that his participation would be of interest to his regular readers. He linked to the HHS blog on White Courtesy Telephone.
Despite the different professional backgrounds and viewpoints of the bloggers, they all share a common interest in pandemic flu, the need to collaborate with other readers and bloggers, and how to communicate information in an easy-to-understand manner.
"The idea is to make sure that the people reading the blog have the opportunity to ... communicate with each other" and "exchange ideas" so that people who are coordinating pandemic flu preparedness efforts can learn from them, Dworkin said. He added that the blog is "not a vehicle for setting public policy," but it could be a way to influence policy.
Another blogger, Mike Coston, is a former paramedic in Florida who does not currently work in the health care field. He founded the Avian Flu Diary blog about 18 months ago because he was deeply interested in the topic of pandemic flu. Since then, his site slowly has gained a public following -- something that he never intended. Instead, Coston said that he started the blog as a means of communicating flu information to his family and friends. However, he has embraced his new role as an HHS flu blogger.
Flu "is a subject that interests me greatly, and I think that I can do some good in my community," Coston said. He added that today people have the opportunity to use the Internet to make their voices heard, which might not have been possible 10 years ago.
"By using a blog you can talk in a more personal voice," Coston said, adding that he provides a "common man link" by writing about medical issues a straight forward manner.
"I am very impressed that HHS was willing to do this. They have stepped out of their comfort zone," Coston said, adding that the blog is "very innovative coming out of the Beltway."