Cutting Edge: Podcasting - Can You Hear Me Now?

December 15, 2007

Think podcasting is some teenage phase? Think again. It may be the key to differentiating your practice and attracting new patients.


I recently learned that I’m a good candidate for surviving gastric bypass surgery. I neither want nor, thankfully, need this sometimes-dangerous procedure to shed pounds, but still, I’d come through quite well. I’m not a man, my blood pressure is good, I’m pulmonary embolus history-free, my body mass index is less than 50 (by a lot), and I’m under age 45 (by a little).

How do I know all this? A little podcasting birdie told me.

A podcast - a byproduct of the ubiquitous Apple iPod - is a short multimedia clip, usually 15 to 30 minutes in length. Podcasts are typically available as free subscription services offered by anyone and everyone who wants to create them and post them on the Web, where they can be downloaded by computer users. And although podcasts are currently focused on the entertainment industry, instructional podcasts are gaining in popularity.

Legitimate medical Web sites - including The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), the Mayo Clinic, and others - now offer podcasts to their Internet visitors as another method of providing useful healthcare information. If you subscribe to a podcasting service, the information comes to you automatically, usually announcing its arrival on your computer screen with a beep or a pop-up window. That means you don’t have to remember to check the NEJM for newly released studies in your field. Instead, you can peruse the site’s latest podcasts and decide which ones you’d like to listen to or delete those that don’t interest you.

With easily downloadable, free software available on the Internet, you can keep all your podcast subscriptions organized in one place and instruct the software where to check for new content and to delete old files as you see fit. You can take your podcasts with you by storing them on an MP3 player (such as an iPod) and listening to them while commuting to your office or the hospital, working out at the gym, or picking up bread and milk on your way home.

And you can use podcasts to enhance your own business by linking selected programs to your Web site. Invite existing and potential patients to visit your practice’s site as a trusted source of the healthcare information you deem appropriate for their needs. Plus, with just a little additional tech know-how, you can create your own podcasts and make them available to your Web site’s visitors.

By all accounts, podcasting is pretty cool.

Podcasting defined

Like the rest of the computing world, podcasting comes with its own standard practices, lingo, and idiosyncrasies, especially for such a young technology. A neologism (i.e., a word created to fit a new language need), the term “podcast” is a blend of the word “iPod” and “broadcast.” In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared it the “Word of the Year,” only one year post-coinage by journalist Ben Hammersley.

Still, the moniker is confusing, as many people assume (as I did) that the act of podcasting requires an Apple iPod. It doesn’t. Any audio device that plays MP3 files will do. Of course, that could be an iPod, but any MP3 player or even your desktop computer will work equally well. Even the term “podcasting” spins off bi-directionally - it can refer to both listening to and creating podcasts. And “using a podcast” - also called a “feed” - means you’re listening to it (if it’s an audio file), looking at it (if it’s a video), or reading it (again, visual but with text). Sometimes a podcast combines all three methods of information transfer.

If you’re a podcasting newbie, save yourself some time and frustration down the line by familiarizing yourself now with these 10 terms common to the technology:


  • Podcast - A file on the Web accessed via an Internet address (URL) that can be downloaded to a listening device (also called an “episode”).

  • Podcasting - Basically, syndicated “radio” on the Internet that delivers podcasts (which are multimedia files - usually audio or video, but they may also contain images, text, or other file types) from a server on the Internet to you, the client.

  • Podcaster - A person who creates podcasts for uploading to and dispersal via the Internet.

  • Series - A collection of related podcasts or episodes.

  • Listening device - Where your podcasts reside until you get around to listening to, watching, or reading them - usually a computer or a portable MP3 player.

  • Subscription - A user-defined setup between a series and a listening device that automatically downloads the latest podcasts from a specified Web site.

  • RSS - Really Simple Syndication; this is the “language” that reader software uses to connect to specified Internet content.

  • Feed - A Web site URL written in RSS format in which headlines, news, or audio files are made available for downloading.

  • Aggregator - A program that manages a user’s feeds and automatically updates the content. Common aggregators include iTunes, FeedDemon, Klipfolio, MyYahoo, and many others. An aggregator will update the content you select as often as you instruct it to.

  • Feed icon - An active icon on a Web site that indicates that users can subscribe to that site. The growing standard icon for a news feed is an orange square or rectangle that incorporates the letters “RSS,” “XML,” or a symbol that resembles radio waves. Feed icons can also be specific to a particular reader, such as MyYahoo, Google, or NewsGator. If you use, say, NewsGator, for your reader and a NewsGator icon appears on a Web site you want to subscribe to, you can click on that icon to automatically establish a connection.

The three easy steps to accessing a podcast

The easiest way to familiarize yourself with podcasts is to locate one on the Web that appeals to you, click on the podcasting icon with your mouse, and listen. Of course, your computer must already be equipped with speakers and contain the necessary media software to read the selected file (such as QuickTime, Windows Media, RealPlayer, iTunes, etc.).

But suppose you spy a podcasting icon on a Web site you visit often to stay informed of new advances in your specialty. To ensure you don’t miss new podcasts as they are posted, you can subscribe to that site’s podcasting service, and new episodes will be automatically downloaded to your computer. You can repeat this for as many sites as interest you, and you can store all of your downloaded podcasts in one place.

Sound difficult? It’s not, but you will need to do some prep work first:

1) Select a reader. This can be confusing, as there are many readers from which to choose. But don’t panic. Do you already have a personalized home page hosted by Yahoo, Google, or the like? These news aggregators can also act as online readers that can accept any RSS-compatible feed. There are many Web-based readers, too, such as Newsgator, which I find to be intuitive and well implemented.

Alternatively, you can use a stand-alone reader program that organizes, updates, and displays your RSS feeds. Do you already have iTunes on your computer to download music? iTunes works well as an RSS reader. If iTunes isn’t your thing, you can download another stand-alone program from the Internet. Many are free.

2) Next, enter the URL of the podcast feed you’ve selected into your news aggregator (such as MyYahoo) or your podcast management software (such as iTunes). When you find an interesting Web site that has RSS feed capabilities (remember those symbols?), you’ll need to give your reader the URL of the Web site or podcast you’ve chosen. Follow these steps:

  • Collect the URL address. Either right-click on the (usually) orange RSS icon and select the “Copy Shortcut” option, or left-click on the icon and copy the URL address that appears on your browser’s address bar. Either method will capture the RSS feed information your reader needs to access the podcast you desire. Note: If you choose the latter method, just ignore the alarming splash of programming code that will suddenly appear in your browser. All you need is the URL that appears on your browser’s address bar.

  • Switch to your reader and load the URL. Specific instructions on how to do this vary with each reader, but in general, look for a link or menu option within your reader that allows you to add a new feed. For example, if you are using the browser-based FeedDemon, click on “Subscribe.” For a customized MyYahoo or Google home page, select “Add Content.” Accessing your reader’s “Help” section and typing in “RSS feed” should yield step-by-step instructions.

Sometimes adding a new feed to your reader is only one click away. If the Web site hosting the podcast you desire offers a customized feed icon for your reader, simply click on the icon and all the information will be automatically added to your reader.

3) As new items appear in the reader, review the description and listen to or read those that are of interest.

Once you’ve subscribed to a podcasting service using the above steps, updated content will automatically appear in your reader. New content may be updated as often as you instruct your reader to search for it - once a day is common. Most readers will alert you of new or altered content via a small, pop-up window. You can choose to click on the new content, or you can ignore it. Take some time to configure your reader so you can choose and access selected podcasts in a way that works best for you.

Set yourself apart

Of course, listening to podcasts is only half the fun. Why not create your own?

Although many of the sites that offer RSS feeds are professional organizations, individuals create the majority of available podcasts. For a physician, this opens up the possibility of sharing your own knowledge and advice with your patients and the cyber-world at large. If your practice already has a Web site, consider adding your own podcasts to the site, and invite your patients to listen to them. Adding this enhanced content can also attract Web surfers who aren’t your patients - yet. Offering free podcasts can help distinguish your practice from others, giving you a marketing edge. You can also link selected podcasts from respected medical organizations to your site, further enhancing its content.

Confused about which topics to address in your podcasts? Anticipate and respond to your patients’ needs. For example, if you’re concerned by an increasing number of overweight patients visiting your office, you may want to educate them about healthy approaches to dieting and exercise. Such preventive care instruction is ideal for the one-way communication podcasting offers.

And given today’s severely time-constrained office visits, referring patients to your podcasts can in effect provide instructional counsel that you may not have time to deliver one-on-one. Many physicians encounter similar questions from their patients and tire of repeating themselves. Make a list of the most common questions your patients ask, and you’ll soon have a list of podcast topics to record. You may even see patient compliance increase.

Of course, many - if not most - of your patients won’t be tech-savvy enough to know how to download a podcast. If you are serious about using podcasting as a patient education or marketing tool, assemble a brief brochure that takes your patients through the process step by step. If you serve a middle- to upper-middle-class demographic, chances are your patients already have the tools they need.

The younger your patient demographic, the higher your chances that the individuals you care for will have the technical know-how and desire to check out your Web site and listen to your podcasts. Pediatricians are especially well poised to take advantage of this technology. Offering nervous new parents the instruction they need to care for their newborns and address common illnesses will set you apart from your competitors. Young parents are more likely to be familiar with the concept of podcasting. And adolescent patients - many of whom probably already come to your office hooked up to their iPods - are also more likely to know how to download podcasts. Your biggest challenge there will probably be presenting your content in a way that appeals to them.

Get in touch with your inner DJ

But what physician has the time to do this? Chances are, you do. Podcasting doesn’t require purchasing or learning how to manipulate expensive new equipment, and you can easily and quickly create your own episodes using your existing knowledge base.

The minimum requirements for creating podcasts are a USB headset microphone, podcasting software, and a place to store and share your work on the Internet. You can create podcasts by following these steps:

  • Record your podcast using your microphone and recording software. You’ll want to spend some time preparing your material, but don’t overdo it. Ask yourself: Is a straightforward talk on a specific subject sufficient for my patients’ needs? Would a Q&A format make complex material more accessible? You may even want to consider recording a small roundtable discussion with your patients. Use your imagination.

  • Upload your recording to a Web site that specializes in storing and publicizing feeds. Many such sites exist on the Internet. Investigate a bit, and once you choose a site, make sure you understand all of its conditions regarding the hosting of your material. Feedforall.com, which offers such storage, has a particularly good tutorial on how to upload files.

  • Connect your feed to your Web site by providing a link to the hosting site that’s storing your podcast episodes.

  • Establish a regular schedule for updates. Offering new content is crucial to retaining your audience’s attention.

Many physicians who are aware of the technology pass on podcasting with the excuse that they lack the time and/or the know-how. Hopefully, this brief introduction will convince you that you don’t need much of either to take your practice to this next level in patient communication.

Perhaps you’ll choose to simply subscribe to existing podcasts to keep yourself updated on clinical developments within your specialty, and that’s fine. But don’t doubt that people are listening. The consulting firm eMarketer estimates that by the end of this year, podcast listeners will number 10 million, most of whom are adults. Forrester Research projects that the number of American households that podcast will increase nearly 18-fold by 2010. The marketing possibilities of podcasting for all types of businesses are limitless. There’s no reason your practice should be left behind.

Shirley Grace, senior writer for Physicians Practice, holds an MA in nonfiction writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and Notre Dame Business magazine. She can be reached at sgrace@physicianspractice.com.