In Depth

The World at Our Fingertips

MSNBC.com Is Health Advocate for Users

With the click of a mouse, consumers can find all kinds of information about health and medical issues ranging from treatments for diabetes, heart disease and cancer to fitness, bioethics and sexuality.

The challenge for an online news site is to present that information in a meaningful way for viewers, filtering often contradictory research findings through a journalistic filter and providing interactive tools that can help people navigate the complicated world of health care.

MSNBC.com’s health section encompasses breaking news stories, features, columns written by health professionals, quizzes, message boards, health-related videos from NBC programs including “Today” and “Nightly News” and interactive features. There are microsites on categories including diet and nutrition, women’s health, men’s health, children and parenting, mental health, sexual health, aging, skin and beauty and even pet health. The site also features a health library with a wealth of information on subjects such as colds and flu, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cloning and infectious diseases, and offers users the option of receiving a daily health newsletter.

Julia Sommerfeld is the senior health editor who directs coverage of health and wellness news and leads a team of about 20 writers, contributors and producers. The overall mission: helping people improve their health.

“We see our role as being an advocate for our readers,” Ms. Sommerfeld said. “When there is breaking news, we follow up. Our mission is to zig when everyone else zags. Our enterprise stories focus on the challenges and choices of being a consumer in the U.S. health care system.”

A typical day’s health news can run the gamut from new research published in one of the major medical journals to word on a possible vaccine for cocaine addiction to a surgeon’s column on why cases of carpal tunnel syndrome are plummeting.

“I’m constantly striving to have a mix of news with features and changing it out a couple of times a day,” said Ms. Sommerfeld. “We distinguish ourselves from our competitors by the richness of offerings we bring to these topics. While everyone has an Associated Press story, you’ll find videos from ‘Today’ or ‘Nightly,’ a quiz on risks, an ‘interactive’ that explains what a certain disease or condition is, a message board and our own original reporting.”

One of the site’s most popular features is its message boards, where unlike other online forums where people comment on news stories, participants want to tell their own stories and gain from others’ experiences.

“It’s really taken on a life of its own and it’s been really amazing how we can galvanize a community who supports each other,” Ms. Sommerfeld said. “People talk about the challenges of raising their kids, treating their colds and spanking. It’s really cool how communities have formed around subjects like cancer diagnoses and treatment, skin and beauty and pregnancy. In the health area, people take things seriously, and it’s a good environment. When we want people to have a conversation, we direct it toward a message board. A lot of people find the forums through individual stories they’re interested in, and then they can talk about a specific issue.”

In addition this kind of reader engagement, the site provides useful tools including a map of the United States where people can find information about laws that vary from state to state regarding health care. There’s also a baby due-date calculator and tools to assess risk for heart disease and what steps can be taken to prevent it.

Surprisingly, the biggest health-related online story of 2007 was the tainted pet food scandal, according to Ms. Sommerfeld. This year, trends point to the failures of government safety nets for drugs and food as being of the greatest interest. Already in 2008, news stories about tainted Heparin and downer cows entering the nation’s meat supply have galvanized readers.

“People are getting outraged and asking, how do I protect myself if government agencies are not doing their jobs,” she said. “Those are really difficult stories, and it’s hard to advise them. In today’s health care world, doctors and insurance companies are not our advocate. We see our role as patient advocates asking questions to help empower themselves and their families and navigate all of these challenges.”