Seeking a Cure, Patients Find a Dose of Conversation Online

Ann Bartlett, who blogs on about her Type 1 diabetes, was frustrated when doctors tied all her symptoms to diabetes.
Ann Bartlett, who blogs on about her Type 1 diabetes, was frustrated when doctors tied all her symptoms to diabetes. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008

When you walk do you walk with a jerky motion? My whole body jerks at times. When I wake up and I open my eyes I feel this jerkyness in my body. Now at times it is worse than other times...

Please help me and tell me I am ok...

I'm scared...

Susan Rutherford needed to share her pain.

The 43-year-old Philadelphia-area mother with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that causes severe swelling and pain in the joints, turned to the Web to seek out counsel. She posted a message describing her fear on a site specializing in her condition run by HealthCentral Network, an Arlington start-up trying to transform the business of online health.

Soon, a user put up a response to her message. "This sounds terrible," the user wrote. "It is very scary to me also." Another user said it was all right to be scared. "You are young and keep wondering why and how is this terrible disease affecting you. Keep talking to others."

Rutherford said the messages comforted her. "It made me feel less alone," she said.

Intimate exchanges among people living with disease are part of an unconventional strategy HealthCentral is following in its attempt to become an online destination for health information. The company has unleashed dozens of independent Web sites about health topics -- some broad like asthma and obesity, others far more narrow, such as teens living with diabetes -- all with the hope of drawing people in search of help from others with similar problems.

HealthCentral hopes to attract advertising from drug companies, health-care providers and others -- interests that so far have lagged other advertising segments.

The company is counting on search engines to steer customers to its content.

"In the new world, the brand isn't necessarily health in the abstract. It's whatever your need is," said Chris Schroeder, the company's chief executive. "We're trying to participate in a very targeted way."

For example, he said, a young mother with breast cancer might seek different information than a woman in her 60s whose children are grown.

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