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Subscribing to a Belief in Expertise

Fiercely competing with each other and the Internet, newsletters focus on specialized topics such as aging and women's medicine

September 23, 2002|JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today's consumers have a seemingly insatiable appetite for health information. They find it via the Internet, television, radio, newspapers, magazines and, in one of the most convenient forms, newsletters.

Dozens of paid subscription newsletters, generally running eight to 12 pages, are mailed directly to homes from hospitals, universities and prominent doctors. Hundreds more are sent free by organizations such as health plans as a promotional tool.

Competition has been fierce. Over the past decade, as the newsletters have multiplied, the primary players--usually those published by major medical centers--have segued into more specialized information, bringing their reputation for reliability to the hot issues of aging, women's health and men's health.

Not only have these publications helped fill the growing demand for more specific information, they've managed to stay relevant as consumers have become more savvy at extracting news from various sources. The publications have benefited, editors and publishers say, but so have consumers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 444 words Type of Material: Correction
Newsletters--A Monday story in the Health section about newsletters misidentified a publication launched by the Cleveland Clinic in December 1998. It is Men's Health Advisor.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 30, 2002 Home Edition Health Part S Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction
Newsletters--A Sept. 23 story about health-related newsletters misidentified a publication launched by the Cleveland Clinic in December 1998. It's Men's Health Advisor, not Men's Heart Advisor.

"We realized you couldn't spend enough time talking about breast cancer in a general health publication to meet the needs of some women," said Ed Coburn, publishing director for Harvard Health Publications. "In an eight-page monthly newsletter, you couldn't take three pages talking about breast cancer, because you're not doing a service for the other readers."

Dr. Anthony L. Komaroff, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Health Publications, a division of the Harvard Medical School, said that in launching the Harvard Women's Health Watch and other special newsletters, the editors calculated that there were audiences for generalized publications and more focused newsletters.

They wagered, correctly, that while the more specialized publications "would to some extent cannibalize" the general one, the total number of subscribers would grow.

The top circulation of the Harvard Health Letter was 432,000 in the early 1990s. Today it's down to 150,000, but combined circulation of all the publications stands at nearly 700,000, Komaroff said.

There are now 125,000 subscriptions to the Harvard Heart Letter, launched in 1990; 225,000 subscriptions to the Harvard Women's Health Watch, launched in 1993; and the 125,000 subscriptions to the Harvard Men's Health Watch, which premiered in 1996. The Harvard Mental Health Letter, founded in 1984, has just under 60,000 subscribers, mostly mental health professionals.

"Consumer interests have become more focused over time," said Andrew Thorne, of Englander Publications in Greenwich, Conn. The for-profit publisher has teamed with noted hospitals in recent years, launching several health newsletters.

Informing Consumers

About 20 years ago, Americans had few places to turn for general health information besides their doctors. And doctors didn't always want to share information with their patients, believing that they were ill-equipped to understand the complexities of medicine. In the 1980s, organizations like the People's Medical Society began encouraging consumers to become active participants in their health-care decisions.

That's when a flurry of newsletters made their debuts, bringing valuable information directly into the mailboxes of consumers who could read them at their leisure. The world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., began its Mayo Health Letter in 1983; Tufts University's Health & Nutrition Letter debuted the same year. The Wellness Letter followed from UC Berkeley's School of Public Health in 1984; the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter Health After 50 in 1989.

With the material vetted either by the institutions' faculty or advisory boards, the newsletters gave subscribers paying about $30 a year confidence they were getting solid information. At the same time, the newsletters gave the institutions higher profiles. For example, the Cleveland Clinic, a major center for cardiac care, launched Heart Advisor in late 1997 and Men's Heart Advisor in December 1998, boosting its name ID among consumers nationally and internationally.

Today, consumers might receive newsletters from their health plan, their doctors or dentists, and nearby hospitals. Because "99.9% of people get their medical care locally" and never get to a Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic, the local newsletters build brand recognition, said Charles Inlander, president of the People's Medical Society, a consumer health advocacy organization in Allentown, Pa. "When people read that their local hospital is offering a new procedure or treatment, they may think, 'This must be a good hospital because they put out a newsletter.' "

The information is helpful, Inlander says, but doesn't reflect that "these are the same hospitals that are making medication errors, giving you infections you shouldn't be getting and doing the wrong diagnosis."

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