Connecting people living with a disease is part of the aim of HealthCentral in its attempt to become an online destination for health information.

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Susan Rutherford needed to share her pain.

The 43-year-old Philadelphia-area mother with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that causes severe swelling and pain in the joints, turned to the Web to seek out counsel. She posted a message describing her fear on a site specializing in her condition run by HealthCentral Network, an Arlington, Va., startup trying to transform the business of online health.

Soon, a user responded to her message. “This sounds terrible,” the user wrote. “It is very scary to me also.” Another user said it was all right to be scared. “You are young and keep wondering why and how is this terrible disease affecting you. Keep talking to others.”

Rutherford said the messages comforted her. “It made me feel less alone,” she said.

Intimate exchanges among people living with disease are part of an unconventional strategy HealthCentral is following in its attempt to become an online destination for health information.

Independent sites created

The company has unleashed dozens of independent Web sites about health topics with the hope of drawing people in search of help from others with similar problems.

HealthCentral seeks to attract advertising from drug companies, health-care providers and others — interests that so far have lagged other advertising segments.

The company is counting on search engines to steer customers to its content.

“In the new world, the brand isn’t necessarily health in the abstract. It’s whatever your need is,” said Chris Schroeder, the company’s chief executive. “We’re trying to participate in a very targeted way.”

For example, he said, a young mother with breast cancer might seek different information than a woman in her 60s whose children are grown.

Each of the HealthCentral sites features information such as symptoms and treatments. The heart of the sites is a system connecting visitors with doctors and patient bloggers — people with a particular disease who answer questions about living with it.

Different approach

The strategy is different from that of other big health sites.

The leading health Web site is WebMD, an encyclopedia of health information visited by 18 million people each month. Other big players include Everyday Health and Revolution Health, run by AOL co-founder Steve Case.

Fostering discussion is left largely to patient bloggers such as Alexandria, Va., wellness instructor Ann Bartlett, a type 1 diabetic who became frustrated with doctors blaming each health issue she had on diabetes.

“A lot of what I get from readers are people who are similar to where I have been, stuck in a rut,” she said. “Their doctor says they can do this and not do that. How can you get outside of the diabetic box?”

Web producers constantly review what generates traffic to HealthCentral sites and what gets the most queries on search engines. They give that information to doctors and patient bloggers, who write about the subjects in hope of gaining traffic.

After an episode of an HBO series featured mental illness, for instance, “Sopranos and depression” drove traffic. The fatal heart attack of “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert prompted two articles by a heart doctor on what in the newsman’s health record might have sounded alarms.

Schroeder’s views on online media took shape at The Washington Post Co., where he oversaw the Web sites of the newspaper and Newsweek.

After leaving the company in 2005, Schroeder partnered with former Post Co. President Alan Spoon, of Polaris Venture Partners, and three other big firms — Sequoia Capital, the Carlyle Group and Allen & Co. — to buy a small health Web site to serve as the backbone for HealthCentral.

Earlier this year, IAC, the New York media company, bought a minority stake in the firm. A person familiar with the matter, speaking anonymously because the investors do not wish to disclose the size of their investment, said HealthCentral has raised about $75 million total.

HealthCentral has far to go before it is an industry leader. ComScore, a tracker of online traffic, said HealthCentral sites get 3.2 million visitors per month, fewer than WebMD, Everyday Health, Revolution Health, Weight Watchers and about a dozen other health-themed sites.

HealthCentral says it gets about 4 million visitors.

There’s little question that drug companies prefer to put information directly in front of audiences that will want it. But online health advertising has lagged.

Only 4.5 percent ($975 million) of health advertising went online in 2007, about half what other industries spend, according to New York research firm eMarketer. Legal, regulatory and other issues have held back online advertising.

“For the pharmaceutical companies, it’s so much more efficient for them to get to the doctor if they don’t have a blockbuster drug like Viagra that can be used by a wide swath of the population,” said eMarketer senior analyst Lisa Phillips.

Schroeder acknowledges his vision for narrowly targeted sites is still mainly a vision, and not one that is guaranteed of success.

Diabetes site

But one site so far — dedicated to diabetes and teens — is giving him hope.

DiabeTeens.com includes blogs, an essay by a teen who, to lose weight, gave herself less insulin than she needs and a feature called “Ask Ginger,” described as, “Advice on school, sports, love, life and … oh yeah … living with diabetes!”

One teen recently wrote with a question about dating and diabetes.

“i met this guy at my church and i really like him alot and i think he might like me to but he doesnt know i have diabetes and i think if i tell him it might freak him out,” she wrote.

Ginger Vieira, 22, a personal trainer, type 1 diabetic and HealthCentral contractor, offered calming words. “Totally legit reason to freak out — I don’t blame you!” she wrote. “But, I can tell you, so far, I’ve never encountered a COOL guy who was freaked out by diabetes.”

The nature of the advertising on the site, however, did not keep up with the tone and topic of the discussion. Ads focused on bladder control, an in-house obesity site and a heartburn drug. Still, Vieira said, the site provides an invaluable service.

“It’s so hard for teenagers to have type 1 diabetes,” she said. “It permeates every aspect of their life. They don’t have anyone to talk to.”