As a retired jobs counselor who studied government in college, Mimi Singer's medical credentials might as well have been issued by the Hold-the-Mayo Clinic. But when doctors couldn't explain why an older friend nearly passed out over lunch, it was Singer who advised the woman to drink water during and after meals to avoid a sudden drop in blood pressure. "My friend has drunk water with her food ever since," Singer says, "and she's fine."
Singer's deft diagnosis came courtesy of a medical newsletter, one of a burgeoning arsenal published for consumers. The nation's top 10 consumer health newsletters reach more than 4.4 million subscribers, many of them older, educated women hungry for reliable, understandable sources that sort through the daily onslaught of unevaluated health information. Singer buys Cornell University's Women's Health Advisor, as well as Nutrition Action Healthletter from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Johns Hopkins Medical Letter, Health After 50. "At my age, your body has all kinds of surprise quirks," explains Singer, 70. "You don't always want to run to the doctor, so it's helpful to know a bit of self-help."
As people live longer, the content of medical newsletters has evolved from basic stories about diseases and diets toward growing emphasis on fitness and prevention. Some try to help readers communicate better with doctors; others try to help readers avoid doctors altogether. Demystifying the latest scientific studies is still a staple, but newsletters increasingly help sort fact from rumor, especially in alternative health. "It's a really wonderful time to be involved," says Dale Ogar, managing editor of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter, "because so much is changing."
When Nutrition Action began in 1974, jogging was something you did to your memory, and watching what you ate meant making sure your steak didn't burn. The first big medical newsletter, now called Harvard Health Letter, arrived a year later. Today the Oxbridge Directory of Newsletters 2000 lists 40 pages of health and nutrition newsletters, priced generally from $20 to $40 a year.
Why would anyone pay that kind of money when the Internet is chock-full of medical resources? "It's not the information itself," says Alan Rees, author of the Consumer Health Information Source Book, which reviews 47 subscription newsletters. "You can get a superabundance of that on the Internet. People want simple advice. Is it good? Is it bad? Does it apply to me?"