When patients and parents want health information, they often turn to the Internet. Let’s make sure they’re finding the right sources.
By Mike Patrick, M.D.
In the digital age, young patients and their parents have an encyclopedic world of health information at their fingertips. Answers are available on demand, and most people find them. According to recent numbers from the Pew Internet Project, 87 percent of American adults use the Internet, and 72 percent of Internet users report searching online for answers to health-related questions within the past year.
But are the answers patients and parents find trustworthy? Are they based on scientific evidence or on personal experience and opinion? That depends on the online source, and since 77 percent of online health-seekers begin their investigation with a search engine, the quality of answers will vary depending on what sites Google and Yahoo throw their way.
Sometimes the answers are sound. Other times, they’re not. Take the case of Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who reported an association between MMR vaccine and autism in the medical journal The Lancet back in 1998. The story went viral thanks to an emerging form of communication we now call social media, and despite subsequent evidence of fraudulent research, retraction of the article by the medical journal, legal action against the investigator, and a plethora of new evidence clearly refuting the association, many parents still believe it. Why? Because official-looking websites and blog posts and forum boards tell them it’s true. The result? An increasing number of parents saying “no” to immunizations, decreasing effectiveness of herd immunity, and an increasing number of outbreaks of pertussis and measles.
As physicians, it’s always been our job to educate patients and parents with up-to-date, evidence-based health information. That was easy when we were the only reliable source available. But these days, with parents expecting immediate answers and knowing they can find answers with just a few clicks, pediatric practitioners find themselves pushed aside and out of the equation. It’s time to change that. Rather than leaving the answers to Google and Yahoo, doctors have a responsibility to preemptively educate our patients and families on the best and most reliable online resources before a question comes to mind. So instead of trusting a search engine, patients and parents can click their way directly to a trusted source.
Point to reliable resources
What source should families trust? Their first online source should be you. Hospital websites are a great place to provide health-related educational information and links to other trusted sources. But don’t assume parents will remember to look there for answers. Instead, make a habit of reminding them—by word of mouth, exam room bulletin boards, office handouts and email newsletters. In addition to a homegrown digital resource, there are several trustworthy and comprehensive websites with pediatric information you can share with patients and parents.
- Healthychildren.org: This easy-to-navigate site is maintained by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Its strength is a focus on reliable well-child information, with sections on ages and stages, healthy living, safety and prevention, and family life.
- MedlinePlus: Operated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus organizes health information by body system, alphabetical lists, age range and most popular topics. It also offers informative videos, calculators, tutorials, games, quizzes and up-to-date, health-related news. Parents can also use this site to find reliable information about medications, herbs and supplements, and general wellness issues for their children and themselves.
- Children's hospitals' websites and blogs: These online resources call upon the collective expertise of medical staff members. Whether it’s a response to breaking news, the latest research findings or safety tips for vacations and holidays, parents will find timely articles aimed at making their important job of raising kids a little easier.
- Pediacast: This podcast is a way for moms and dads to stay current with child health information. Presented as a weekly audio program, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers to listener questions and interviews with pediatric and parenting experts. You can find the show in iTunes, on iHeartRadio and at PediaCast.org.
Digital education is great. Informed parents are better parents. As doctors, we can no longer stand by, hoping our patients and families successfully identify reliable, evidence-based answers from among the thousands of hits returned by an Internet search. Our patients still look to us for answers, and one of the most important answers we can give is the right place to look when we are not around.