Highlight HEALTH 2.0 Interview: Bertalan Mesko

Reading time: 8 – 14 minutes

In 2006, Bertalan Mesko (Berci) started Scienceroll, a blog about genetics and popular medicine. It quickly evolved into a leading source of information following the impact of Web 2.0 on medical education and healthcare. He posts regularly on Twitter (@Berci) about health 2.0, medicine 2.0 and personalized medicine (top five words: rt, ff, medicine, medical, health), and maintains two “microcarnivals” on FriendFeed: Gene Genie and Medicine 2.0.

Berci Tweet Cloud

Over the past four years, Berci has accomplished many things. In 2009, he started a Ph.D. in clinical genomics after graduating with an M.D. from the University of Debrecen in Hungary. From his work at Scienceroll, he has been invited to lecture on medicine in the Web 2.0 era at several clinics and departments at the University of Debrecen, and has presented at several medical conferences around the world.

Berci Mesko

In 2008, Berci launched the first university credit course for medical students that focuses on Web 2.0 and medicine (med20course.wordpress.com). He also founded Webicina.com, the world’s first medical Web 2.0 guidance service. Webicina aims to ease the work of physicians and scientists by recommending useful tools and sites and by presenting them the new world of Web 2.0. Just last week, Webicina launched its 65th medical topic spanning 15 languages on medicine.

I’ve known Berci Mesko since 2006 and we recently had a chance to talk about Scienceroll, Webicina and his professional path in the Web 2.0 era.

The Interview

Berci Mesko, thanks for taking some time to talk with me and being the first of hopefully many interviews on “movers and shakers” in Health and Medicine 2.0. When I thought about doing this series last year, you were the first person to come to mind. So let’s jump right in: you were pretty busy back in 2006 working on your M.D. — what motivated you to start Scienceroll?

I was quite active online, used several web applications and resources in my studies, so I thought it could be a nice experiment to start sharing medical and genetics resources through a blog. That is how I launched Scienceroll.com, which after a few months, got special mention in Medgadget’s Weblog Awards. This was a huge motivation for me and I dedicated even more time to my blog which later became a daily routine. Also based on the feedback and comments I received, it seemed I really should keep on blogging.

Did you ever think Scienceroll would become as well known and regarded as it has? When and how did you start to see a change?

I think Scienceroll has already found its core audience, though the number of RSS readers is still growing. The change, at least for me, was when Scienceroll won Medgadget’s Best Technology Blog Award in two consecutive years and when conference organizers started to invite me to speak because they found the content I publish on Scienceroll valuable and interesting. I believe Scienceroll just became my online CV with several slideshows I uploaded, my thoughts and opinions on recent medical developments, technology or web tools. Even if I use many other communication channels (microblogs, etc.), I think a blog is the most important platform for someone working online.

Several years ago, you started two blog carnivals — Gene Genie and Medicine 2.0 — which have become what you call “microcarnivals” on FriendFeed. Although the microcarnivals are a great resource for articles, there’s very little participation by others. Do you have any plans to change the format?

When I launched these blog carnivals 3 years ago, they were managed in the traditional blog carnival format. I remember, you also hosted some of the editions. But it required a lot of work so I switched to the microcarnivals which, to be honest, are more of a repository of medicine 2.0 and genetics-related information than a collaborative platform. Although, I encourage everybody to share articles there, but I’m not surprised by the little participation. I know many doctors who will never leave comments on my blog entries or send messages to me on Twitter, but like reading the content I share and publish online. They are the “silent readers”.

There’s a growing movement towards participatory medicine and patient research. How do you view these movements and how do you think doctors can leverage them in their practice?

I think this is a very important movement and patients and their doctors should actively participate in it. In my university course, there is a lecture focusing on e-patients and I always tell students, no matter how they are educated right now (doctors, in most cases, are educated to be able to guide patients without asking their real opinion, and get used to patients who do not care about the background of the disease or the evidence behind the treatment they get), in the near future more and more patients will become equal partners in the treatment, which is the real goal after all. I have to tell you some doctors I know are afraid of that as they have no idea how they will handle a situation when the patient knows more about a new treatment than the doctor only because the patient is up-to-date online. So there is no question, we are getting closer to the era of participatory healthcare and I’m very happy about it.

Tell me about your idea behind Webicina: when and why did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea in 2008 when tried to find relevant social media resources in different medical topics and realized that there are portals providing quality medical sites such as HONcode but social media is out of the scope of all these portals. I thought I should start a free service that does exactly that: features manually selected medical social media resources. Of course, as time evolved, it became so much more: right now over 65 medical topics are covered in 15 languages including Japanese, Chinese or German. Based on the feedback and the e-mails we receive, people like and use Webicina, they like that the whole content is for free and that the resources are selected manually by professionals.

With more and more misinformation on the Web, it’s challenging to find reliable sources of health and medical information. Talk to me more about the content on Webicina. Where do you find the information and how do you verify it? Are all the sources HONcode accredited?

Some of the resources, mostly blogs, are usually HONcode accredited, but not all of them as our assessment is different. Users suggest topics that should be covered. Then my team starts searching for relevant social media resources based on my “written algorithm”, which incorporates years of experience and medical perspective. Then we have several rounds in which we manually verify all the blogs, podcasts, Twitter users and many more Web 2.0 tools and remove those that aren’t totally reliable. And, what is the most important part, we list the quality features we based the decision of inclusion on. We search for resources really everywhere online, receive thousands of submissions from users (takes time now to evaluate all of them) and users also send submissions after publishing one package. We have 65 topics and I estimate to reach the 100 milestone in 2010.

How do you choose the packages and the specific information sources for each package? Do you intend to review and update the sources for each package as new information becomes available?

I have a very long list of steps my team has to perform when creating a package and there are several reviews before publishing one topic so it takes time to come up with one selection. I do not just intend to update the sources, but we must do it all the time. Last week, a new internal solution was developed and launched so it became much easier for us to update the packages. Also, I’ve been very lucky to have such active users as many of them tell us immediately whenever they experience something unusual in any of the resources we feature (change in the advertisement method, etc.) so we can act fast. We have about 2000 resources included in the packages, and there was only one case when users asked us to remove one resource (an autism blog).

In many ways, Health 2.0 is at odds with evidence-based or science-based medicine, since users often sharing personal (i.e. subjective) experiences. On the other hand, Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, microblogging and wikis, enable patients to directly communicate with one another. What are your thoughts?

I take privacy very very seriously. The key lecture in my course is dedicated to online privacy and doctor-patient communication. I tell students that even if they are now just students, whatever content they publish or share online, it will hunt them forever. They should think deeply before publishing anything (photos, thoughts, entries). My advice for them is “don’t post a photo online which you wouldn’t post on the bulletin board of the university”, because students as well as doctors and patients tend to think they can hide in the internet. Well if there is one place where you definitely cannot hide, it’s the internet so pay attention to your own privacy. But as you mentioned, there are tools with huge potential and that is why we must educate students and doctors (and patients in different ways) to know more about this issue.

Do you have a development timeline for the Webicina? What is your future plans for the company? Where do you see it in three or five years?

Of course, there are huge posters on our wall with lists of future developments for each month. We plan to surpass the 100th topic and reach the 20th language version in December. We plan to include a semantic-like search engine this year, publish an iPhone application in October and a Facebook app in November. As we were approached by US hospitals about letting them use PeRSSonalized Medicine internally, I think we will create unique solutions for them, again for free.

In 3 or 5 years, Webicina should be a key destination for those patients or doctors who are looking for quality social media resources or want to read the latest personalized medical news in their own languages.

You’ve just graduated from medical school and have started working on your Ph.D. in genetics. Where do you see yourself professionally following your graduate studies?

It’s a bit complicated to focus on my PhD, Webicina and also my blogs, but I’m really happy with how my life is going right now. I hope to finish my PhD in 2 years and then I believe I will have to decide which part of my life I will dedicate more time to: the academic career or the online projects. To be honest, I hope to find a compromise as I really love both of them.

About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.