British scientist conducts world’s first experiment on Twitter

twitter_logoProfessor Richard Wiseman,  psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire and author of Quirkology, is today undertaking the first ever scientific experiment to be conducted using Twitter.

The experiment is designed to test the existence of a psychic ability known as ‘remote viewing’ – the alleged ability to psychically identify a distant location.

Prof Wiseman is pretty skeptical about the possibility of psychic powers, but, as he notes, “the American government spent millions of dollars examining remote viewing and lots of people believe that it is a genuine ability”.

At 3pm GMT on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, Prof Wiseman will travel to a randomly selected location in the UK. He will then ask all his Twitter followers to tweet about their thoughts concerning the nature of the location.

Thirty minutes later, he will provide online photographs of five locations (the actual location and four decoys) and followers will vote on which of the five spots they think is the actual target location.

If the majority of people select the correct target then the trial will count as a hit, otherwise it will count as a miss. Three or more hits in the four trials taking place this week will be seen as supporting the existence of extrasensory perception.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Prof Wiseman says “three hits would be against odds of one in 125, which would be quite impressive” , although on his website he revises this statistic to 1 in 37.

Extra sensory perception, which includes remote viewing, was chosen as the subject of this study because of the interesting methodological issues involved, including blind judging, the elimination of subtle sensory cues, and randomness.  There is also a psychological dimension to the study because everyone is being asked to indicate their belief in the paranormal when they vote as to which location they believe is the true location, allowing Prof Wiseman and his team to look at differences between those who believe in psychic abilities and those who are skeptics.

As of today, 6,500 people have signed up for the experiment, although Prof Wiseman hopes that as many as 10,000 people will eventually take part.

Prof Wiseman has organised several mass participation experiments, not least LaughLab, a worldwide experiment to find the world’s funniest joke.

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British pharmacy offers morning after pill online

contraception-onlineLloyds Pharmacy has become the first high-street chemist to offer the ‘morning after’ pill emergency contraception online.

The pharmacy’s website gives the option to buy between one and three emergency contraception pills online, so women can be prepared prior to any accident.

Users need to complete a confidential health questionnaire before completing an order, which is reviewed by a GP.  By using this questionnaire system, the company hopes to avoid selling contraception to girls under 18.

Emergency contraception is most effective if taken within 3 days (72 hours) of unprotected sex, but can potentially prevent pregnancy if taken up to 5 days after.

The pills on the Lloyd’s website take 72 hours to arrive, however.  This delay is deliberate so that women who have already had unprotected sex and need emergency contraception immediately head straight to a local pharmacy, GP or family planning clinic rather than risk missing the crucial efficacy period while waiting on the postman.

Instead, the idea of online ordering is to allow women to have an advance supply to ‘prepare for the unexpected’. Steve Marinker, spokesperson for Lloyds Pharmacy, explains that women might find an advanced supply of the morning after pill useful for circumstances where it might otherwise be difficult to get hold of contraception within the crucial 3-day time window. “Maybe something’s gone wrong with their normal contraception and it’s a Saturday night,” he added, “and they might be anxious about how long it will take them to get a morning after pill, and that they might have to wait until Monday morning.”

Users also have the option to order two pills in case they vomit after taking a pill – a not uncommon side effect of emergency contraception.

Emergency contraception contains high doses of female hormones: either levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestogen, or progestin, another type of synthetic progestogen, plus estrogen. The progestogen analogues cause changes in the mucus and lining of the cervix, making it harder for sperm to reach the uterus and harder for a fertilized egg to attach to the uterus.  Estrogen, on the other hand, stops the ovaries from releasing eggs that can be fertilized by sperm.

As one might expect, the right wing press are up in arms about this development.  The Daily Mail cites Fury as High Street pharmacy sells morning-after pill online, whereas The Daily Telegraph opts for Anger over ‘morning-after pill bulk-buy offer’.  These publications are harping on the old fear that easy availability of the morning after pill will fuel promiscuity, which the current system prevents, they say, by involving an ‘uncomfortable’ interview with a pharmacist that may act as a deterrent to such behaviour.

Promiscuity surely is only a problem for society if it leads to unwanted pregnancies, whereas emergency contraception prevents this happening.  More to the point, currently a woman could walk into a pharmacy three days in a row if she wanted to create a stockpile (how much of a deterrent can a disapproving pharmacist really be?), the online ordering system just makes this process more straightforward.  I welcome Lloyd’s Pharmacy’s move as a good way of ensuring women can use emergency contraception as soon after unprotected sex as possible.

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Connotea: Saving References Made Simple

The Next Generation Science blog has just put up a guest post I wrote for them about the online reference management service Connotea.  Here’s an extract:

Surfing the web, you come across a great journal article that you don’t have time to read immediately or think might come in useful when you’re writing your next research paper. A few days later you try to find the abstract again, but where is it?! Buried in your web browser favourites menu? Scrawled on a piece of paper you’re sure you left right by the computer?

If you often have this problem, the social bookmarking website Connotea could be the answer. Connotea is a free online reference programme for scientists, researchers and clinicians. Connotea was created in 2004 by Nature Publishing Group, who decided “to take the Delicious model and add features that would be specifically useful to academics”, says Ian Mulvany, Product Development Manager in charge of Connotea.

Next Generation Science is a website dedicated to examining emerging internet technologies – such as blogs, wikis, social bookmarking and folksonomies (tagging) – and their impact on the scientific method, researchers and the general public.  Head over to their site to check out my guest post and other recent articles on open notebook science, the effect of the US economic stimulus on research funding and the efforts of companies that just don’t ‘get’ web 2.o.


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Am I on the Wall Street Journal website?!

I was looking through my blog stats today and spotted that I had a few referals from  Check it:


Yup, it looks like The Wall Street Journal website has aggregated the blog post I wrote this week about the Wellsphere kerfuffle.

A quick bit of research and I have discovered that is a blog aggregator and filter that uses to beef out their website with third-party content.  Here’s the blurb: uses OneSpot to find and deliver these headlines and links. To get the list, OneSpot identifies the active members of the health content community by analyzing a set of sources provided by the WSJ editorial staff. OneSpot matches them to thousands of other related sources from around the Web. By continuously monitoring these sites and outbound links, OneSpot generates a list of popular health stories.

I can’t find a complete list of which other blogs WSJ is aggregating, but a quick look at shows that the content of blogging contemporaries of mine such as Medgadget and The Happy Hospitalist is being rated as worthy of inclusion as that of big-name news sites like BBC Health and New York Times Health.

I feel like my blog is really starting to take off recently and this kind of encouraging coverage makes me want to post as often as I can.  Big self-congratulatory pat on the back for me.  Well, not too big – I’m feeling pretty pukey this evening.  I believe an Australian has poisoned me with chicken nuggets.  Not as some kind of post-colonial revenge, but due to poor oven operating skills.  I’m going to go to bed.  Or throw up.  Or throw up then go to bed.  Emphatically not go to bed then throw up.

Less self-absorbed posting will continue on Monday.  Have a good weekend folks!

P.S.  Of course, the difference between this kind of blog aggregation and what Wellsphere is doing is that readers get directed to my website to read the full post.  I get exposure on a well-known website AND the website traffic?  This is the kind of deal Wellsphere should have cut.

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Health bloggers bite back as Wellsphere sells on posts provided for free

Thanks to Robin for the parody of Wellsphere's logo.

Wellsphere, a health community website that brings together information from more than 1,500 medical experts and bloggers, has been sold to HealthCentral Network, a collection medical information websites and condition-specific portals.

Dr Geoffrey Rutledge, Chief Medical Information Officer of Wellsphere, generated content for his site by sending flattering emails to thousands of medicine and health bloggers (sample text “I want to tell you I think your writing is great”, “we are building a network of the web’s leading health bloggers – and I think you would be a great addition”).  Bloggers gave Wellsphere permission to publish the entire RSS feed of their site, i.e. posts they had already written, in return for exposure for their blog and more traffic.

However, the small print of Wellsphere’s terms and conditions states that by giving Wellsphere permission to reproduce their posts, bloggers automatically grant the company “a royalty-free, paid-up, non-exclusive, worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual license to use, make, sell, offer to sell, have made, and further sublicense any such User Materials[.]” (Thanks to Symtym for checking this out)

Bloggers who allowed Wellsphere to replicate their posts have suddenly realised that content they happily provided free is no longer theirs and has been sold off to HealthCentral for a profit, and boy are they mad.

Exactly how much HealthCentral paid for Wellsphere has not been disclosed, but neither company is short of cash. Techcrunch reports that Wellsphere has raised $3 million in funding from venture capitalists, whereas HealthCentral has $50 million in capital.  Bloggers are fuming that such well endowed companies haven’t given them a share of the pie, or even consulted them about the consolidation deal.

On the other hand, HealthCentral’s CEO Christopher Schroeder told the Wall Street Journal Health Blog that most bloggers “are happy and we hope with all our resources and quality-content background we will really strengthen these engagements”.  Fat chance, says the blogosphere.  Interestingly, his colleague Jeremy Shane told Medical Marketing & Media that “Wellsphere’s bloggers may be monetized through the placement of banners and other advertising”. Hmm…

For the benefit of other Europeans like me who were happily sleeping while the Wellsphere debacle kicked off in the US, here’s a roundup of the reaction across the blogosphere.

Writing on on Getting Better, Dr Val Jones asks “Is this the biggest scam ever pulled on health bloggers?”, whereas over on Science-based Medicine she goes a step further and calls for “the medical/science/health blogosphere to rise up ‘Motrin moms-style’.” (Last year Motrin, a company that sells analgesic medicines, tried to sell product to Mums who carry their child in a sling or a wrap by pointing out that this practice could cause back pain, and also for good measure said that ‘baby carrying’ was a fad that made Mums look “tired and crazy”. Unsurprisingly, Mums didn’t take kindly to this and headed to the internet in droves to voice their outrage, eventually forcing Motrin to take down the offensive advert and apologize to each Mother who had complained). Dr Val discusses the issue at more length in yesterday’s Doctor Anonymous show.

Jenni Prokopy, Editor of, is sympathetic to bloggers who feel short changed by Wellsphere’s actions. She does point out, however, that blogging constitutes proper publishing and as such writers should be thinking about getting paid and about their rights regarding copyright and intellectual property.

On Musings of a Distractible Mind, Dr Rob details his lucky escape from Wellsphere after 4 months of syndication provided him with zero extra traffic.

Theresa Chan, author of Rural Doctoring, is nervous about possible sinister outcomes of Wellsphere’s approach to content. “What if they decided to compile and publish a book for sale on their site, entitled 1001 Health Tips From Real Doctors, and proceeded to include one of my posts verbatim, along with posts by a proponent of chelation therapy for operable coronary artery disease and an anti-vaccination followers of Jenny McCarthy?”, she asks.  “Their Terms of Service would give them the right to use my post in their book, and I would have no control over the implications of association with other content I strongly oppose.”  Kevin, M.D. likewise is suspicious of Wellsphere’s motives, and asks “Is WellSphere a scam, and is its leadership laughing all the way to the bank after the HealthCentral acquisition?”.

Ana, a Brazilian who writes about mental health, tried to get out of Wellsphere mere days before the storm kicked off – I wonder how she’s getting on, as diabetes patient Kerri Morrone Sparling of SixUntilMe had to resort to shock tactics to get her Wellsphere account deleted.

My Strong Medicine, Beyond Meds and The Butter Compartment have all also given their two penneth on the Wellsphere scandal.

Over on Twitter there is reams of discussion on the subject of WellsphereDr. Vijay Sadasivam, who blogs at Scan Man’s Notes, points out a 2007 expose of office life at Wellsphere, and TrishaTorrey notes that Wellsphere are on Twitter themselves (@wellsphere) and should be copied in on any complaints.

And me?  I was also approached by Wellsphere last year but turned down their offer mainly on the basis of their shonky web design.  I thought their homepage was completely unhelpful, giving away nothing about what the site was for, and their WellPages portals, although packed with pretty good content, weren’t exactly easy to find or navigate.  I also read a post from August 2008 on the Neurocritic blog and took heed of their gossip on Wellsphere’s employees and business approach, and read on The Assertive Cancer Patient about how ill advised it is to sign away your blog – your own intellectual property – to a company like Wellsphere.

Like the Assertive Cancer Patient, I am also a freelance writer.  Although I happily blog for free – for pleasure and as an online CV – I know that if I chose to I could sell the same quality writing, or even the exact same post, to a newspaper or magazine; thus, giving it away is just silly.

So where does this leave bloggers?  If you’re happy with the exposure Wellsphere is giving your blog then you don’t necessarily need to do anything, but most bloggers are severely irked by how they have been treated by the company and are doing their best to delete their account.

If anything, this whole kerfuffle has been a lesson to the whole blogosphere on the importance of protecting your intellectual property online (check for more info on this subject) and on how crucial it is to read the small print.

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Busting the fake online pharmacies

which-is-realAn orchestrated raid in ten countries has led to the arrest of several individuals behind online pharmacies that illegally sell unlicensed or prescription-only medicines.  Dozens of residential and commercial addresses in Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, the UK and the USA were searched by investigators and countless counterfeit drugs were seized, including those purported to treat conditions such as diabetes, impotency, obesity, hair loss and the side effects of steroid abuse.

The operation, codenamed Pangea, was undertaken by the international police agency Interpol, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), and the Permanent Forum on International Pharmaceutical Crime.

Federal agencies in the US conducted an intensive one-day inspection of international mail in Dallas, Chicago, Seattle and New York.  In total approximately 635 international mail parcels were examined and 18 containing counterfeit Viagra, Cialis, steroids and Xanax were seized.

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency visited 12 residential and commercial addresses relating to seven websites thought to be selling unlicensed agents or prescription-only medicines.  Over a thousand packs of pharmaceuticals were seized, as well as several computers and reams of documentation.

Over 50% of medicines bought from illegal websites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit – i.e. they are deliberately mislabelled with respect to their identity or source. The quality of such drugs is unpredictable, as many contain the wrong amount of active ingredients, wrong ingredients or no active ingredients at all.

Jean-Michel Louboutin, Executive Director of Interpol’s Police Services, said, “Buying medicines from illegal and unregulated websites poses significant risks, not least that the buyer is putting their health in danger by taking drugs which have no guarantee of safety, quality or effectiveness”.

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Welcome to the new look blog!

In sickness and in health has now moved from my old Blogger site to a spangly new WordPress site that forms part of my shiny personal website,

The blog should work pretty much the same as the old site and the RSS feed is still the same, so all you need to do is update your favourites.  I hope you enjoy having a good rummage around, and please feel free to contact me if you have any comments or questions about the new blog or indeed the whole website.

On a similar note, I am also in the process of physically moving to France – I’ve been pretty busy undertaking this relocation so apologies that things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front.  Normal service will resume shortly…

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The Lancet website relaunch

Today medical journal The Lancet relaunched a sleek and efficient new version of their website

The team at The Lancet consulted 100 authors, readers, doctors and clinicians – or ‘development partners’ – to find out what users wanted, and the result is a much cleaner and easier to use website. In the new design, The Lancet journals The Lancet, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, The Lancet Oncology, and The Lancet Neurology are now all accessible and searchable from a single website.

In a special podcast to accompany the launch, the Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton outlines his favourite features:

“The most exciting things about The Lancet’s new site for me are first, we have the possibility for internet television … in the YouTube would that we live in I think that’s immensely important for communication, especially in health when you’ve got some pretty difficult concepts sometimes. And secondly, I think we’re also able to convey the personality of The Lancet in ways that we’ve never been able to before: the idea that we’re publishing research, educational material, and also opinion.”

The new video functionality is showcast Story, a very flashy and professional-looking production in which members of the journal staff and Dr Anne Szarewski, clinical consultant at Cancer Research UK and one of the development partners, discuss what the new website means to them. The Lancet hopes that in the future users will be able to submit their own medical videos to the site.

Richard Horton boasts that the website has “the best search engine in medicine”, and certainly it’s an awful lot faster than the search on the previous incarnation. Importantly, the search results include not only results from The Lancet family of journals, but also all relevant results in Medline, a life sciences and biomedical publication database run by the US National Library of Medicine.

Articles now include links to related material as well as social bookmarking tools, including parent company Elsevier’s 2Collab social networking tool. In addition, online community features are planned, including social networking, debates, wikis and discussion boards.

On the editorial side of things, original research articles now include drop-down Editors’ Notes within the table of contents – 2 or 3 sentences that summarize what is important about the research – while journal homepages feature three articles that represent the Editor’s choice. The news aspect of the website has been expanded with the inclusion of ‘This Week in Medicine’, short paragraph-long summaries of what has been going on in medicine worldwide. Specialty-based online collections comprising content from across The Lancet family of journals will launch in the near future, one mooted project being a cardiology portal.

I think the new version of is a vast improvement on the previous website, not least because it is so much easier to navigate and doesn’t trip you up with sign-ins every 5 minutes. The site also looks far crisper, in stark contrast to it’s cluttered forebear. I’m more into text than multimedia so I’m not fussed about using the new video content, but it’s certainly very impressive and a new direction for The Lancet.

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Hospital employees fired for posting photos of patients on MySpace

I recently wrote a post about how patient privacy can be threatened in blogs written by doctors. Now a new case illustrates another way that healthcare professionals can violate patient privacy online.

Yesterday the Associated Press reported that two hospital workers in New Mexico had been fired for taking pictures with their mobile phone cameras of patients being treated. Even worse, these pictures – “mainly close-ups of injuries being treated in the Albuquerque hospital’s emergency room over the past few months” – were posted online on MySpace. This all happened despite the fact that hospital employees were banned from taking mobile phones int patient areas.

Unbelievably, this incident doesn’t represent the first time this sort of thing has happened. In May last year the Tri-City Hospital in San Diego confirmed that medical workers in the hospital had been taking photos of patients with their mobile phones, and the Associated Press reports that there have also been similar violations in Arizona and South Dakota. Also, UCLA banned mobile phones and laptops earlier this year after a patient posted group photos of other patients on a social networking website, although I feel this instance is a slightly different issue.

This issue was picked up in the blogosphere (WSJ Health Blog, Kevin, M.D. and Scalpel or Sword to name a few) as bloggers were horrified that hospital employees could do something so stupid. Posting photos of patients online, particularly patients in an emergency room who are may well be unconscious and totally unaware that they are being photographed, is an unbelievable violation of patient privacy. Let’s hope this is the last time this sort of thing happens.

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Digging for the best healthcare information on the internet

You may have noticed that ‘Vote’ buttons have appeared at the bottom of my blog posts. Clicking on one of these buttons will submit the particular blog entry to Healthcare Today, a new website where users proffer and vote for the best healthcare news and blogs on the internet.

The majority of information for doctors and other healthcare professionals comes from traditional outlets like journals, but this route is a slow and very formal way of getting stuff out there. In comparison, the internet is far more immediate, but information online is liable to be poorly written, filled with inaccuracies, penned by crackpots, or hopelessly biased, and that’s just for starters.

Healthcare Today aims to unearth good medical news and blogs online and highlight the most interesting stories. But as Shane, a creator of the site, says, “instead of being a reflection of some editor’s (possibly biased) perception, it’s the professionals in healthcare who decide what’s interesting and how interesting it is by submitting links and adding their votes.”

Healthcare Today works in a similar way to the website Digg, in that users are invited to submit news articles, journal papers or blog posts that they discover on the net and then vote on links they find interesting. The front page of the site contains the most popular links, representing an essentially peer reviewed overview of the best medical information online.

The site is aimed at healthcare professionals – i.e. doctors, nurses and the like – so a lot of the links on Healthcare Today are to blog posts that discuss the day to day trials and tribulations of these groups. There are also plenty of links to medical or medicine-related news stories; for example, the most popular link at this exact moment is time is from ABC News: ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ lesson? TV ups awareness, a story about a new study that has quantitatively shown that audiences of TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy absorb health messages in the programmes.

At the moment links only need about 4-5 votes in order to make it onto the front page, but hopefully as the number of users and of submitted links continues to grow Healthcare Today will come to truly represent the most up to minute source of healthcare information on the net.
And here comes the shameless self promotion – if you think a post of mine is good and other people interested in medicine might want to read it, give the old vote button a click and submit the entry to Healthcare Today!

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