When it comes to news, I am a sucker for fast. My first full-time gig was at a wire service, where knowing everything the moment it happened was our whole raison d’etre. I’ve not read a stock price in a newspaper in two decades. I’ve taken to watching election results in real-time on the web — even cable news can’t deliver that information quickly enough. And though I’m a thousand miles out of the local viewing area for the Washington Capitals, my phone buzzes every time my Caps score a goal, sparing me the agony of having to get online — or, worse yet, read the paper the next day — to check the scores.
Yet when it comes to health, it’s not the speed of information that is critical. It’s the quality and the external validation. For that reason, immediacy of coverage of health in the media doesn’t influence the opinions of doctors or patients in the way that yesterday’s box score influences what people think of the Red Sox.
From a communications standpoint, that means it might be wise to pay less attention to what is on the wires today, and more about what Google says. Google CEO Eric Schimdt, speaking at the J.P. Morgan Health Care Conference, said that around 4 to 5 percent of all searches are for health information. And it’s estimated that the first three entries on a search page account of nearly two-thirds of all clicks. That means yesterday’s big story about a medical breakthrough might already be digital fishwrap, but the top hits on a search engine will keep attracting enormous numbers of hits, day after day after day.
For that reason, we’ve been watching those top three entries in Google more and more closely, watching to make sure that information is accurate and up to date. This isn’t search-engine optimization; the top natural results for major keywords such as “cancer” or “multiple sclerosis” aren’t likely to be displaced. Instead, it’s about checking those links and forging relationships with those who are responsible for them. In general, the top three health links are coming from four sources:
- The Government: .Gov sites are increasingly seen as go-to destinations, though concerns about fragmentation continue to worry health info experts.
- A.D.A.M.: The Atlanta-based company feeds well-vetted information to a huge number of organizations, from the NIH to the New York Times to medical colleges.
- Advocacy Organizations: Groups like the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association have hundreds of pages of consumer health information, backed by trusted brand names.
- Wikipedia: Though Wikipedia has both its fans and detractors, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a first stop for millions of web users.
In all cases, these documents have writers and editors, even if they are uncredited. There are editorial processes, and there are entire teams decided to making sure that information is accurate and up-to-date. And with Wikipedia, it’s even more transparent: every change to every page is tracked, and most editors are easy enough to contact.
The day after a Food and Drug Administration approval or a major medical journal publication, we too often ask what a given reporter thought about the news. The real question is what the Wikipedia editors thought or whether the news way big enough to get A.D.A.M. to fast-track revisions to the medical information.
Increasingly, then, our job as communications pros will be to work assidously to make sure that online medical resouces are updated quickly and accurately, not just to court news coverage. Hits to a Wikipedia page inevitably spike in the days following a new approval or a big study; failing to know — and interact with — editors lowers the chance that information-seekers will get up-to-date information.
For that reason, I am striving to better know those influential (but often behind-the-scenes) individuals that provide so much of the medical information available to patients and providers today. Because while today’s news fades, Google is forever.