Podcasting for Your Health

No longer just the terrain of wellness gurus, major health care research institutions and journals are starting to use podcasts to communicate the latest medical breakthroughs.

Not surprisingly, topics like yoga, fitness, sex and pilates dominate the list of health-related podcasts on Apple iTunes. But in the last few months, major health care institutions and scientific journals have all hurried to issue their own, much more sober, podcast offerings.

This could mean that consumers, as well as doctors, scientists and other industry professionals, will have more accessible updates on the most recent heath care research developments.

The transition into podcasting has been most accessible for institutions like Johns Hopkins Medicine and the Mayo Clinic, which were already producing radio spots.

Podcasts from the Mayo Clinic provide quick takes on very specific medical issues, and according to a recent study by Pew Internet Research, that is what most consumers are looking for from health care information online.

Recent topics include lung cancer screening and a new device for stroke prevention. Johns Hopkins offers the take of its chief of clinical cardiology, Dr. Rick Lange, on the latest developments revealed in research journals.

Elizabeth Tracey, director of the health newsfeed at Johns Hopkins Medicine, started creating the podcasts a few months ago after a brainstorm with a doctor on staff.

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Since she was already doing a newsfeed providing commentary on breaking medical news as well as showcasing the institutions research accomplishments, starting the podcast was only a slight expansion of her existing duties adding a few hours a week of work for both her and Lange.

Tracey believes the Johns Hopkins podcast is a valuable service for consumers, who are often deluged online with health information from disreputable sources. "Theres a lack of reliable medical information, especially with podcasting," she notes.

Doctors, notoriously tech-phobic, may be another story however. Asked if any of the physicians at her institution are using podcasts to keep up with the bevy of newly-issued research, Tracey responded, "I dont talk to anyone who says that theyre doing it." Still, she wonders "if the younger ones are early adopters, like with e-mail."

Optimistic that doctors and scientists will soon be tuning in, a range of scientific and medical journals have jumped into the podcast fray of late. Publications including the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, and Nature have all started offering podcasts that briefly summarize the contents of their most recent issues.

The New England Journal of Medicine also does a weekly podcast interviewing physicians on current topics of interest which it started in April of 2005; the first interview was on the medical aspects of the Terri Schaivo case.

With this series and its podcast summarizing current contents, the journal is targeting physicians and has found that younger physicians are downloading the podcasts. Particularly after the Christmas holiday, NEJM noticed an uptick in downloads possibly due to iPods being given as gifts, that were immediately put to use.

"The feedback weve received thus far seems to indicate that people are finding these very useful," said Kent Anderson, executive director of international business and product development for the New England Journal of Medicine.

"The audio programs seem to appeal to younger physicians, but were getting comments from across the spectrum and around the world," he notes. "Weve gotten some suggestions, like chaptering the podcasts, that indicate physicians want to sort through even these condensed forms."

And the more mainstream media outlets that cover scientific developments like NPRs Science Friday and the weekly publication New Scientist are starting to gain traction as well.

iTunes ranks Science Friday as the 32nd most subscribed podcast, making it by far the most popular science offering.

Even federal government agencies have gotten into the act.

The National Institutes of Health launched a podcast covering announcements of major research developments they have helped to fund. And the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality started a podcast last fall that gives consumers tips on obtaining the best medical care.

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