Back in the ‘good old days’ (i.e., the 1980s), when I was a country doctor, I often was the first source patients looked to for medical advice. In 2014, people now routinely refer to the Internet for information, and therefore, for medical advice. While information is readily available, how accurate and trustworthy is it?
To determine the accuracy of online medical information, researchers in the United Kingdom used key words to search Google for advice about five common pediatric topics: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, HIV infection and breastfeeding, mastitis and breastfeeding, infant sleep position, and management of green vomit. The first 100 websites listed in the results for each search were evaluated.
Thirty-nine percent of the websites gave accurate information (consistent with current U.K. recommendations, which are, in turn, consistent with American Academy of Pediatric recommendations and guidelines), 11 percent provided inaccurate information (inconsistent with current U.K. recommendations), and 49 percent didn’t provide pertinent advice.
Information on the MMR vaccine and autism, and HIV and breastfeeding was correct in only 65 percent and 51 percent of sites, respectively. The websites on the other topics were accurate more than 94 percent of the time. All government sites were accurate. However, news sites were accurate only 55 percent of the time, and sponsored sites (sites that pay premiums to be featured prominently in results lists of search engines) almost never were accurate.
Which sites were more likely to give correct information? The study found that government websites (like CDC.gov) were the most accurate, followed by institutional sites (ie: hospital sites). Sponsored sites—those that have paid a price to appear prominently on the search engine site—were most likely to offer incorrect information and most likely to have conflicts of interest, such as selling a product.
How should parents use the Internet to find accurate and useful information? I recommend accessing government websites and those associated with trusted institutions like children’s hospitals (mercykids.org is one such example). The American Academy of Pediatrics website (AAP.org) offers excellent data-supported information that’s accessible and easily understood.
How should parents discuss information found on the Internet with their child’s pediatrician? Realize the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom. Information is what you find, and is subject to interpretation and bias. Knowledge is having the background of other information, as well as experience, that allows you to interpret the information found. Wisdom is the ability to use information and knowledge to determine what is true and to act on it.
Your physician has the knowledge and wisdom to help you use the information that you find on the internet. If you have specific questions about information you find, print it and take it with you. Your pediatrician should be open to discussing information you bring and should augment that information with facts, based on additional knowledge and experience.
Ask your doctor for alternate sites to search or alternate sources of information. You also should be open to your pediatrician’s opinions that are based on the wisdom obtained through training and experience. A pediatric medical home is a partnership between you, your child and your pediatrician—the Internet is just one tool used in this relationship.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Kids (mercykids.org), an expansive network of pediatric care dedicated to meeting the needs of every child, every day.