Accuracy of Online Discussion Forums on Common Childhood Ailments

By Farrell, Alison | Journal of the Medical Library Association, October 2018 | Go to article overview

Accuracy of Online Discussion Forums on Common Childhood Ailments


Farrell, Alison, Journal of the Medical Library Association


INTRODUCTION

Many parents today go online to seek out advice and support when dealing with common childhood problems, diseases, conditions, ailments, and other issues. Sebelefsky et al. found that 94.4% of parents attending a pediatric outpatient clinic in Austria used the Internet to find health-related information [1]. This result agreed with a study by Moseley et al., who found that among parents at pediatric clinics in southeast Michigan, 96% used the Internet to find health information pertaining to their children [2]. In the general population, according to the Pew Research Center, 72% of American adults use the Internet to find health-related information [3]. However, as in the general population, there are varying levels of information literacy among parents, ranging from parents who trust everything they read online, with no critical appraisal of the information, to parents who seek only the highestquality evidence and view the information with a high degree of skepticism. Therefore, it is important to understand the nature of the online health information that parents consider.

There are numerous avenues for obtaining health information online, with some being evidence-based and others being purely opinion based. One type of information source that often appears when searching the Internet for common childhood ailments-such as fever, leg pain, or pink eye-are online discussion forums. In Sebelefsky et al.'s study, of those parents who used the Internet for health-related information, 62% used health forums and communities [1]. These forums can range from being directed at a very particular audience, such as parents of children with type 1 diabetes, to broad forums on general parenting topics. In a systematic review conducted in 2014 examining how social media were used in health care, Hamm et al. found that almost all studies showed a high use of social networking sites, with discussion forums being one of the most widely used tools on the sites [4]. In a study of Hispanic mothers, discussion forums, specifically those on BabyCenter.com, were widely used because participants valued advice from others in similar situations or with similarly aged children [5]. One reason for trust in this type of site was that the answers were found to be similar to what one might see in books [5]. Similarly, in an examination of the discussion forum on the parenting website mumsnet, Doyle found that people used the forum to advise others to seek medical care, give interpretations of symptoms and possible diagnosis, provide advice to push for specialist care, and provide advice for self-care [6]. Doyle found that people tended to trust the information if several responders provided similar information.

One issue with discussion forums is that there is a high potential for the spread of misinformation due to the potential lack of accurate information [79]. Another issue leading to the spread of misinformation is the potential for a respondent to present patient-specific advice received from a health professional, which may not be appropriate for the original questioner [7]. Despite this potential for the spread of misinformation, Balkhi et al. found a high degree of trust placed in the community that populates the forums in a study of parents using an online discussion forum specific to type 1 diabetes [8]. By contrast, Bernhardt et al. found that participants were more reluctant to trust information found from other parents, specifically diagnosis and treatment advice [9].

The accuracy of advice provided in online discussion forums has rarely been assessed [7], though Henderson et al. claimed that forum websites were of a lower quality than medical-type websites or "not for profit" health websites. This analysis was based on characteristics of the sites such as reading level, site design, and transparency of information source [10], rather than the content of the advice being provided. By contrast, Cole et al. …

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