Combining solid science, simple language in online health info [video]
The Internet has replaced the "pediatrician on speed dial" for many parents as the first place they turn for information.
Maureen Hill, a Wilmington mother of three, says it's just easier. "It's less time-consuming just to get a quick answer on the Internet." When she observes symptoms, or one of her children gets sick on a weekend, she goes online first to evaluate whether she should call her pediatrician.
It's what Amy Lacy Powalski did when her son Charlie, 3, came home with a rash and a fever.
"I was googling to figure out what he might have and it was 'fifth disease,' and I had never heard of this before," she said.
But how do parents know if they can trust the info they have found? Should they call the doctor anyway?
Enter kidshealth.org, which is led by a pediatrician.
Striking the right balance
Dr. Neil Izenberg heads the Nemours Center for Children's Health Media, which produces the site. Twenty years ago, he was creating print materials and videos for hospitals. A few years later, as people started using the Internet, Izenberg sensed a huge, new opportunity.
"This is going to be fantastically useful," he remembers thinking. "So we jumped with both feet into the web, and by that, I mean I hired one person."
Izenberg says good online health information should allow people to research symptoms, to familiarize themselves with a diagnosis, and should offer healthy lifestyle tips. It has to balance solid science with simple language.
"We have to write in a simple way," explained Izenberg. "Now you can explain complicated things in simple language, and that's part of the art of what we do. I think part of the art also is interweaving the medical with the emotional aspects, how this may affect the family."
Everything published on the site is reviewed by several doctors and scientists.
Something for everyone
The site has different sections, one for parents, one for teens, and one for kids — which is decidedly different from the grownup section.
"Kids are interested in gross stuff, boogers and stinky feet," explained Debra Moffit, kids' editor at kidshealth.org. "They are interested in things that happened to them — chicken pox, strep throat — and they are also very curious about how the body works."
A video series called "how the body works" looks just like a cartoon kids would watch on their favorite channel.
"We don't want it to look like a musty old textbook, or a slide show they have to watch in school," said Moffit. "I don't think it's pandering. It's about making them feel like they belong, that this site is for me."
Of course, the web is old news these days — the newest game is mobile platforms and apps. And Izenberg says the center is now developing health apps such as the one called "Is it Contagious?" about infections that the kids might have or that kids in day care might have.
"It has wonderful illustrations, it tells you how long to keep the kids out of school," said Izenberg.
Charlie's mom, Amy Powalski, could have found "fifth disease" here, the rash and fever that were plaguing her son.
For Maureen Hill, certain Internet sites have become an essential resource in her kids' care, a resource that professionals seem to trust as well.
"I have gone to doctors and they have searched the Internet to give me answers," Hill says.
Aside from professional advice, Hill says she also enjoys exchanging ideas, advice and tips with other parents online.
A version of this story will air on a WHYY-TV First Extra: Health+Technology. The half-hour special explores the ways tech innovations are driving medicine and airs at 5:30 p.m. on March 28 on WHYY-TV. It will be re-broadcasted on April 2 at 7:30 p.m.
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