The Kinsa thermometer connects to a smart phone app that asks questions about symptoms, to help a mom decide how important it is to see a doctor. (Kinsa Health)
Mothers often serve as the “Chief Health Officers” of their families, and now digital technology is driving a fundamental change in the way they fulfill this role.
In a 2013 survey, the Kaiser Family Foundation found 74 percent of mothers say they make the decisions about selecting a doctor for the children, and 81 percent of mothers say they take the children for doctor’s appointments.
Mothers now have access to an incredible amount of data about their children, as well as about health in general. Mobile devices, social media, online medical resources, and wearables are redefining the way mothers seek out information and make decisions.
Lynn Vos, CEO of the Grey Healthcare Group and a former nurse, says the result is that many families are not waiting for a doctor to tell them what to do.
“Parents are taking their family’s health into their own hands,” Vos says. “Young mothers are actively using technology.”
The Modern Mom
Dr. Hansa Bhargava is a pediatrician and works as a medical editor with WebMD. She says her practice has changed dramatically because parents, primarily mothers, now come to her armed with information.
“A majority of moms go to the Internet to find out health information, before they even book an appointment with a doctor,” she says.
“When I leave the room, I come back and they have new questions because they hopped on their phone. They want to be independent and find the information themselves.”
Dr. Bhargava says a large amount of WebMD’s parenting information is accessed on mobile devices, because that’s where mothers are. Many are highly active mobile users, and when a question comes up—Timmy develops a weird rash at the park—they can whip out their phone and search for answers.
Mobile devices not only serve as a portal for health research, but also for improving health literacy. Health IQ is a mobile app that measures how health conscious and knowledgeable you are.
Cofounder and CEO Munjal Shah says moms represent a core group of Health IQ’s “power users.” Having children is what he calls an “activation” moment when people start to get much more interested in health, even if they were not health conscious before.
“No-one is born with a user manual for the body,” he says. “New medical research about things like sugar, BPAs in water bottles, and Red Dye 40 comes out all the time and you have to pay attention.”
Death by Data
While in many ways empowering, this font of information can also become a burden.
“There is genuinely concern among women that they aren’t doing the right thing,” Vos says. “They deal with this the best they can but they feel a fair amount of guilt when they can’t keep up.”
For some mothers, the load of information provides peace of mind.
Lauren Davis is the VP of Marketing for Kinsa, a company that makes a connected thermometer and companion app that parents can use to track symptoms and medications. She is also a mother of two daughters and describes her family as “tech-forward” and “data-driven.”
If Davis’ daughter has a temperature, she can research her symptoms, check the elementary school’s forum to see if any illnesses are going around, and then decide if a doctor’s trip is needed and how soon.
“I’m not sure if parenting is easier or harder now that we have access to all this data,” Davis says. “It can be a lot easier when you don’t know about all the things that are bad or dangerous, but at the same time, it’s really nice to be worried about something and go online to look it up, or watch the data. I find comfort in all this knowledge.”
This capability is particularly valuable for parents of children who have chronic medical conditions or disabilities. Bhargava says these parents can now become informed experts and advocates for their children in a way that just wasn’t possible before.
Katherine Gauthier is a mother of four. Her oldest and youngest children both have unique medical needs, and they are 22 years apart in age.
“I have an adult son with physical and mental limitations and a 10-year-old son with genetic disorders,” she says. “My oldest son is pre-Internet, so I have dealt with this in two different eras of information.”
When Gauthier’s first son was born, she lived in a rural area and her main sources of medical information were family, friends, and a general practitioner. She says she struggled to find the information she needed about rare disorders and unusual symptoms, and ended up visiting a local senator's office because she didn't know where else to ask for help.
With her youngest son, Gauthier says, the Internet has been her tool, for good and for ill.
“I always go to doctors’ offices as informed as I can be,” Gauthier says. “Back when my oldest was young, common sense prevailed and it wasn’t quite so overwhelming. Now sometimes I worry about death by data. I have to try really hard not to get sucked down this rabbit hole of fears, unknowns and possibilities. Sometimes if I go too far in, I feel my heart beating quickly and my breathing changing, and I know I need to shut it down.”
It’s easy to type a simple word like “headache” into a search of symptoms, and before you know it, become convinced you have brain cancer. Dr. Bhargava says she has had to “talk parents down.”
“I do see patients that suffer from over-information, but I would not blame it on the fact that there is a lot of information out there,” she says. “At end of the day, it's about balance.”
Vos agrees that access to information isn’t the problem—the challenge is interpreting it, which the average consumer isn’t trained to do. This is what doctors are for, and no amount of “Dr. Google” can replace that, the moms in this story agreed.
“I never go in with a self-diagnosis,” Gauthier says. “I don’t lead the doctors and I listen to what they have to say. After they tell me what they think, I may bring up some of the things I learned online in a tactful way. They seem open to that, and appreciate the fact that I do my homework.”
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