Rebekah Anne Costello, OMS III, of the Midwestern University/Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine (MWU/CCOM) in Downers Grove, Ill., was lonely when she started medical school. At 34, she had taken a byzantine path to MWU/CCOM that involved three children, seven higher-education institutions and a lot of soul-searching. When school started, Costello was the second-oldest student in her class and the only one who had children. She was sure her classmates were coming from a different place in life.
Hoping to learn about the experiences of other nontraditional students like herself, Costello took to the Web. To her surprise, the nontraditional medical student blog community was very male-dominated. She decided to create a blog of her own.
“As a woman and as a mother, it’s an art form to be able to balance everything and do everything,” she says. “I wanted to show other people who may be thinking about going to medical school but may be thinking, ‘I can’t do this with a family,’ that yes, you can, and here’s how.”
Costello started writing, and the comments flowed in. More moms with medical school dreams were out there, and their words of encouragement made her feel less isolated.
“I am 32 now, so will be 34 [when] I start med school if all goes as planned,” wrote Jessica Jaimes. “I have three kids who are now 4, 9, 11. … You are definitely an inspiration.”
Many DOs and osteopathic medical students share Costello’s desire to use blogging as a platform to help others. To raise women’s awareness of heart health, Tiffany B. Sizemore-Ruiz, DO, a cardiology fellow in Miami, started the blog A Woman’s Heart.
“One of the main reasons I decided to do cardiology is that I saw a big discrepancy between women’s and men’s treatment when it came to cardiovascular health, and women seemed less aware of heart health issues,” she says. “I don’t have the means to spread the education and the word to a larger group of people, so I decided to start a blog about women’s heart health to try to reach a bigger audience.”
Scott R. Rennie, DO, who blogs about health in general, also started writing with patients in mind.
“There’s a vast amount of medical information on the Internet, and much of it is not really vetted with the medical community,” says Dr. Rennie, who is an urgent care and family medicine physician in Honolulu. “I wanted to create a place where patients could find some reliable timely information and also have the opportunity to ask questions outside of just a clinical setting.”
Blogging about health can benefit physicians professionally, says Aaron J. Barlow, the author of Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. In an age when more health professionals communicate with their patients via impersonal channels such as email and the Web, physicians can show their patients a more personal side of themselves by blogging, he says.
“For the doctor to have a blog where he or she is talking about various things that come up—not about specific patients, just in general—can give patients more of a sense of who the physician is,” Barlow says. “Patients would rather feel that their physicians are human beings. Blogging can be a very useful way of improving doctor-patient relations.”
Maria T. Boylan, DO, who blogs about motherhood and her residency, agrees. Blogs are a great tool for family physicians in particular because they often develop close relationships with their patients, she says.
“I think having a blog makes me seem like more of a real person to my patients,” says Dr. Boylan, who is a first-year family medicine resident at Concord (N.H.) Hospital. “I’m not just a doctor who’s telling you what to do and what medications to take.”
Dr. Sizemore-Ruiz’s blog gave her career a bump beyond her relationships with her patients. She says her blog helped her land a position on the American Heart Association’s executive leadership board, and she has also given lectures in her community based on one of her popular blog posts, “Rules to Live By.”
Dr. Rennie has a link to his blog on his business cards, and he sometimes gives patients links to specific articles where they can read more about certain conditions. He says it’s difficult to measure the impact of his blog on his professional life directly, but he notes that he has more than 15,000 followers on Twitter and has received much positive feedback from his patients and peers.
Making sense of illness
Some members of the osteopathic medical community have blogs for nonprofessional reasons, and they share more of their own life stories. They, too, have found that their blogs benefit others.
Sean Wyman, OMS I, blogs about attending medical school while struggling with pulmonary hypertension.
“I know a lot of people who have pulmonary hypertension or cystic fibrosis who are probably not going to be able to live relatively normal lives with the diagnosis,” says Wyman, who attends the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, Calif. “So I write about mine because it gives them solace. They think, ‘Hey, wow, if you can do it, so can I.’ “
Bonnie R. Gintis, DO, started her blog after she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She was surprised that other cancer patients read her blog and reached out to her.
“I’ve gotten phone calls or letters from strangers, from people going through their own cancer experiences, who said what I wrote strongly resonated with them, and they found it incredibly comforting and helpful,” she says.
For her part, Dr. Gintis found that blogging filled a void that opened when she began treatment.
“The part of me that’s frustrated and saddened by the fact that I’m unable to practice anymore still wants to have an outlet where I can hold the space for other people’s healing,” she says. “And yet, I don’t have the physical ability or the energy to do that the way that I used to, in the context of a private practice. So if I can write something that serves that purpose for someone, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
The original purpose of her blog, Dr. Gintis says, was to keep friends and family posted on her status and progress. But it became something else entirely—a means of therapeutic expression.
“I was surprised at how intimate and revealing I was willing to be,” she says. “I knew it was going ‘out there’ and anybody could read it, so I still tailored it for the general public. There are some things I did not go into, but I felt that it was helpful for people to hear about how I was navigating this experience.”
When private details go public
Like Dr. Gintis has, physicians who blog must consider that their work will be open to the public. Many bloggers don’t do this, Barlow says, and then they write things that get them into trouble.
“A lot of people are not self-editing enough,” he says. “People tend to say things that maybe they shouldn’t about relationships, about what they’ve been doing. If you’re not careful with what you’re saying, it can get back to people.”
Physicians who blog professionally will worry about confidentiality as well, Barlow says, but they can avoid mishaps by keeping their posts general.
That’s exactly what Dr. Boylan does.
“I do everything I possibly can to guard my patients,” she says. “I change details about the story so that there’s no way a reader would know who my patients are.”
Dr. Boylan suggests all physicians who blog have a legal notice on their website where they state that any content should not be taken as medical advice. In addition to this precaution, she also carefully considers each post before clicking “Publish.”
“I try to put a lot of thought into what I write and make sure that as a physician it’s not going to put me or the hospital I work for in a bad light,” she says.
Dr. Gintis says she heavily self-edits her work as well.
“Before I post an entry, I just take a deep breath and look at what I’m putting out there, and I ask myself, ‘Is there anywhere in the world I don’t want this to go?’ ” she says.
Only once did Dr. Gintis have a concern about privacy in the context of her blog. She had applied to teach a course at a university, and she wondered if the hiring manager would google her, find her blog and be turned off by the fact that she had metastatic cancer. The university didn’t hire her to teach the course. While noting that her blog may have had nothing to do with why she didn’t get the job, Dr. Gintis ultimately decided not to worry about its potential role in the selection process.
“The blog was much more important to my life,” she says. “And if there’s something in my blog that either offends anybody or makes them hesitant to have me as a part of something, then I don’t need to be a part of it.”
MWU/CCOM’s Costello says she worries about how her blog may affect her applications to residency programs, but she feels the pros of blogging—which include sharing her experience with other nontraditional students—outweigh any cons. She recalls the time she gave a tour of Midwestern University’s campus to a group and one of its members approached her afterward. He told her he had read her blog, and her experience inspired him to visit Midwestern and consider medical school.
“It was so incredibly awe-inspiring to know that this complete stranger came here because I had shown that medical school could be done with a family,” Costello says.
Physicians and medical students who have something they’d like to show the world, but haven’t yet started a blog, may be wondering where to begin. Barlow offers these tips for successful blogging.
“Post at least once a week and probably more,” he says. “Respond when somebody puts a comment up. But never respond negatively, even if the commenter is being very negative. Try to find a way to be polite.”
Regular posting is important, Barlow says, because readers will revisit the blog and expect to see new content. If they don’t, they may visit less often or stop checking the blog.
What if it’s time to update your blog but you have nothing to say? Barlow suggests aggregation, which is the act of sharing news that’s posted elsewhere. For instance, when The New England Journal of Medicine releases an intriguing study, a blogger can summarize it, write a few lines on what he or she thinks about it, and post a link back to the original study.
Dr. Sizemore-Ruiz says it’s crucial for bloggers to choose a theme or a topic that they’re passionate about. Bloggers should also be themselves, she says.
“You have to write from your own heart and from your own personality,” she says. “That has to come across in the writing. That’s why it’s interesting to read different people’s blogs. It’s not just different topics, it’s different personalities that you’re getting a glimpse into.”