by Michelle Guillemard
Anyone can be a health blogger. This freedom to connect with others and share inspirational messages should be a wonderful thing – but it’s not. We’ve fostered a dangerous culture. Because, for every well-intentioned health blogger with the best plans to spread positive health ideas, there are many more who are pushing risky and unfounded opinions.
Personally, I find it really unfortunate that health blogging has now become synonymous with pseudoscience-peddlers, people who fake cancer and controversial celebrity chefs. Not all health bloggers are charlatans.
So how did we get here? At some point, whether due to the sheer ease of setting up a blog, copycat syndrome or influence, health blogging has lost its way.
Health bloggers have social responsibility
Health bloggers need to understand that their content has the power to influence the health choices that their readers make.
There are varying degrees of risk associated with this power – depending on the advice given.
For example, the consequences of telling your readers that grapes aren’t the best choice for your child’s lunchbox because they’re too high in sugar are very different to those of refusing medical cancer treatment in favour of Gerson Therapy or denying your children vaccination.
While avoiding grapes doesn’t sound dangerous or life-threatening – it’s still a fairly extreme message. Is it socially responsible, when we live in a society where childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high and mothers are constantly fighting a war against junk food conglomerates, struggling to get their children to eat fruit and vegetables? Probably not. So why say it?
Health bloggers – like all bloggers – benefit from their messages in various ways, from growing a strong community to product or membership sales. More often than not, there’s a financial incentive. Some thrive on controversy. Others genuinely believe in the health advice they’re giving.
What is health advice?
Most health blogs directly or indirectly offer health advice, like:
- Instruction and direction on how to manage or “treat” a health condition
- Facts about what a health condition is or does
- Dietary advice – what to eat to achieve a desired result
- Medication advice – drugs and natural therapies to take for a desired result
- Lifestyle tips – how to be happier, exercise more, meditate in the mornings, etc
A lot of this advice is given in the context of storytelling, a key component of an engaging blog. Storytelling through blogging is about connecting with readers on a deep, personal level by sharing a piece of yourself – whether that’s a tale of how you overcame a health concern or explaining how a particular therapy or treatment has “worked” for you.
Yet just because a health blogger achieved a certain result, doesn’t mean everyone else will, too.
Anecdotal evidence is not scientific evidence – and it should not be the basis for serious health advice.
What is the risk in giving health advice?
To put it bluntly, the most extreme risk resulting from any sort of health advice is death – whether that advice comes from a medical specialist or a blogger.
Medical specialists dedicate their lives to understanding health so they can provide the best health advice and patient outcomes.
On the other hand, most health bloggers aren’t medical professionals – that is, they haven’t spent decades studying medicine, biology and science. Many do have health-related qualifications, like a diploma. For others, the majority of their learning probably comes from reading other people’s blogs and formulating an opinion.
I’m not advocating medical degrees for health bloggers. But I do believe the amount of research a health blogger should conduct to formulate an opinion on a health topic depends on the seriousness of the health concern. It could be weeks, months or years. It’s about understanding the breadth of an issue, as a whole – as well as in its social, economical, historical and political context.
Not all health bloggers take the time to research their topics in detail. They publish their posts quickly, aim for as many likes/shares/comments as possible and then move to the next topic. While a part of this comes down to marketing strategy, health bloggers also know that there’s a very strong demand for online health advice.
Why don’t we want to get our health advice from doctors anymore?
Our modern society has decided that medicine should be “curing” us. But medicine was never intended to “cure”. It was always intended to “treat”. Yet for some reason, many of us can’t accept this. We feel like nature should have given us everything we need in order to survive – and thrive. And it’s this feeling that has made many people lost trust in their doctors – instead depending on advice from health bloggers who promise alternatives to modern medicine that “work”.
Also, many people turn to health blogs for health advice because it’s convenient. Some mothers prefer to Google images of infant rashes rather than haul their kids into a waiting room for hours, for example.
Health bloggers also forge deep connections with readers – it’s the type of relationship that can’t be had with doctors who, traditionally, keep their patients at arm’s length. Health bloggers allow their readers to get to know them on a personal level and create a feeling of camaraderie – like they ‘get’ the needs and wants of their community. They are open, honest – and, importantly, they know how to market themselves and make health ‘sexy’ and appealing.
What if doctors became health bloggers?
It seems logical that, if doctors could somehow take the qualities that our society loves about health bloggers – trust, openness, convenience, friendship – we would be on the way to our health blog utopia. Yet there are barriers to this. Regulations prevent doctors from giving health advice in public forums. Plus, certain conditions will always require face-to-face consultations.
For now, we need more high-quality health blogs that do it right
We need more health bloggers who:
- Take the time to research their topics in detail – where the amount of research reflects the seriousness of the topic
- Are well-intentioned – there’s nothing wrong with monetizing a blog, just not at the expense of misleading readers or preying on reader insecurities
- Are upfront about their qualifications – transparency and honesty are key
- Write well about scientific research – it’s not easy to write about medical research and scientific terms in consumer-friendly ways, but it can be done with time and effort
- Give an accurate portrayal of evidence for therapies – that is, not implying there’s a benefit when there is no evidence to prove it – and being clear about the differences between anecdotal and scientific evidence
- Offer limited health advice – health advice should be limited by the scope of the health blogger’s experience and the risks associated with the advice
How can you be a responsible health blogger?
Being a socially responsible health blogger involves:
- Weighing up the risk and using your common sense – are you providing suggestions on how to “treat” a health concern, or are you simply writing about how meditation can help to increase feelings of relaxation?
- Giving an accurate representation of the benefit in the context of evidence – even if you’re writing about controversial or new therapies, don’t imply that there’s evidence when there is none
- Reading widely – read a variety of high-quality sources in a variety of formats – including journal articles, news articles, textbooks, and other blogs
- Speaking to qualified health experts – talk to doctors, specialists and researchers with qualifications and experience, so that you can be sure you truly understand a health topic in its entirety
- Always recommending a health professional consultation – focus on working with health professionals, not against them
Have you been put off starting a health blog because of these issues? Who’s doing it “right”, in your opinion?