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Surviving Dr. Facebook

Medical advice is available on social media in seconds. But before you trust the hive mind, read this.


By JESSICA MIGALA

Above Image | GS/Gallery Stock

WHEN LEAH Thompson’s 2-year-old, Rachel, started having breathing problems, her family was in and out of the E.R. multiple times in the span of six months. Worried, the mom of two from Murray, Utah, posted in a few online mommy groups, asking for positive thoughts. What she received instead: lots of unsolicited medical advice, including a suggestion from one commenter to use essential oils (because “emergency rooms are expensive” and “it fixed my kid’s problems”).

When Thompson eventually took Rachel back to the hospital, the toddler finally received a proper diagnosis of asthma and started getting the treatment she needed.

If you belong to a parenting group on social media—usually private or “secret” groups made up of moms in your area—you know the drill: A mom posts a health-related question, such as “Does this picture of my child’s mysterious rash look bad?” or “Should I start my 6-month-old on rice cereal or sweet potatoes?” Then other moms chime in with a deluge of commiseration, cures, and support.

While the technology is a new phenomenon, the instinct to pick the brains of fellow moms is age-old. “We’ve always looked to friends for advice. This is just a new way to do it,” says Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City, Missouri, who runs the blog KC Kids Doc. More than half of mothers and a third of fathers discuss parenting and child-health issues on social media, and about 75 percent of parents say being part of online groups helps them feel less alone, reports a survey by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Fortunately, enjoying the perks of posting—without suffering negative consequences—requires following just a few guidelines.

Know when to post.

Sites like Facebook work best when you’re tapping moms for parenting or discipline issues, not medical ones, says Rachel Vreeman, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis. A few queries that are just about perfect for posting: troubleshooting milestones like potty training; finding creative snack options; comparing when to start giving an allowance; searching for local kids’ events; swapping dinner recipes; and seeking recommendations for pediatricians. However, when it comes to health, information could be inaccurate and negligent.

Read comments critically.

It’s not uncommon for members of online mommy groups to offer advice on curing a child’s autism through dietary changes, how to make baby formula at home, or the benefits of a chiropractor for everything from allergies to reflux. Christina Saida Needham, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was shocked when she read that mothers were suggesting squirting breast milk directly into a baby’s ears to treat an ear infection—instead of going to see the doctor.

At best, a treatment might not work; at worst, it can be harmful. It’s dangerous for an infant to drink formula that lacks the appropriate vitamins and minerals, says Dr. Vreeman, coauthor of Don’t Cross Your Eyes…They’ll Get Stuck That Way!: And 75 Other Health Myths Debunked. And putting breast milk in a baby’s eyes or ears could be a recipe for infection.

Katie Ruvalcaba, of Noblesville, Indiana, knows how easy it is to be steered wrong. When she struggled with breastfeeding her first baby, she asked an online group for help. “They said under-producing breast milk was rare, my baby was getting enough from me, and that formula-feeding was tantamount to child abuse,” she recalls. Ruvalcaba saw a lactation consultant but waited two weeks before going to the pediatrician because other moms told her that he’d push formula on her.

By the time her appointment arrived, her baby was crying constantly. “The doctor told me that she had lost too much weight, she needed to eat, and I couldn’t let my pride get in the way. He didn’t let me leave the office until we gave her formula,” Ruvalcaba says. “I’m so glad he did. Feeding her was more important than trying to breastfeed.”

John Wenzel got caught up in unsolicited advice when he posted about a fund-raising walk for his son’s type 1 diabetes. “People chimed in with suggestions about how my son should take cinnamon pills, eliminate gluten, and try breathing exercises,” the Denver dad remembers. “A lot of people had no idea what they were talking about. Their intentions were good, but their advice angered me. Parents need to do their homework.”

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some lucky parents do find the answers they seek on social media. Kelly Johnson, of Wheeling, Illinois, turned to a group about her daughter’s acid reflux and colic. “I got some feedback about the difference between reflux medications, which helped me know what questions to ask at the pediatrician’s office,” she says. “For colic, the best response I got was, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ It helped me act more calmly with my screaming baby.”

Check with experts.

“I love that moms are connecting on social media. But you don’t want to confuse experience with expertise,” says Parents advisor Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital and author of the blog Seattle Mama Doc. Just because a mom has a child with eczema doesn’t mean she will be able to diagnose it in your child or tell you all about the best available treatments.

The truth is, there’s no surefire way to accurately evaluate the information other parents post online. What you can do: “Think twice before asking a stranger for definitive advice you’d normally ask your doctor for,” says Dr. Swanson. If you still feel compelled to post, vet whatever advice you receive with trusted experts before making any decision on an intervention. For example, you could tell your doctor that another mom said her son had the same problem and that a certain medication or treatment helped—then see what she says. This rule holds especially true for complementary therapies (such as essential oils and supplements) that may not be regulated by the FDA.

Before consulting your doctor, you could also try using the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) symptom checker at HealthyChildren.org, which is a reliable source of health information. And remember: Your pediatrician should be willing to answer your questions and respond to your concerns in a timely manner, says Dr. Vreeman. If social media is attractive because your pediatrician is not available, then it’s time to find a new doctor.

Divulge selectively.

Some topics aren’t a good fit for social media, warns Emily Webber, M.D., vice chair of the AAP Council on Clinical Information Technology. “Urgent situations are not the time to crowdsource,” she advises. For example, if your baby has a high fever or is having breathing problems, seek medical care right away. The same applies to questions like, “Does this need stitches?” or “Should I go to the E.R.?” In those cases, your doctor should be your first call.

Consider your child’s privacy too, says Dr. Burgert. “It’s not fair to post his unique medical history or personal facts about his mental health,” she says.

Before you hit “post,” keep this in mind: “The advice that comes from social media is free, and you get what you pay for,” says Dr. Burgert. That’s something Leah Thompson took away from her experience. “I’m okay asking about what stroller to use or where to get a deal on pajamas, but I leave health advice to the experts,” she says. “The biggest thing I learned is that other moms have plenty to say about everything. They just don’t always know what they are talking about.”