Pediatrician Credibility Survives Health Misinformation Wave

TORONTO — Misinformation in pediatric medicine, like other areas of medicine, is widely regarded as a major public health threat, but the good news is that a new survey reveals that pediatricians still believe their counsel is respected by patients and families.

Despite acknowledging that health misinformation is on the rise, “nearly all the pediatricians we surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that their patients consider them a trusted information source,” reported Elizabeth A. Gottschlich, MA, a senior research associate with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Itasca, Illinois.

These data were generated by an ongoing cohort analysis called the Pediatricians Life and Career Experience Study (PLACES). Each year, two surveys are conducted with three groups of pediatricians in this cohort. They are defined by years in which they graduated from residency (2002-2004, 2009-2011, or 2016-2018).

While the longer survey of the two captures an array of issues regarding life and practice, the shorter “checkpoint” survey addresses a high-priority topic. In 2023, it was health misinformation. The data from this survey were presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting.

About 40% of the 2706 pediatricians who completed this particular survey (just over 65% of the participants in PLACES) were general pediatricians, 50% were pediatric subspecialists, and 10% were hospitalists.

Almost all of the survey questions were answered on a five-point Likert scale.

A Matter of Trust

According to Ms. Gottschlich, approximately 80% of pediatricians agreed or strongly agreed that misinformation is a clinical issue for them. About one third of these strongly agreed, and only 6% disagreed.

There was also strong consensus that the problem has grown worse since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic. To this statement, 70% agreed or strongly agreed and 24% did not agree or disagree. Only 4% disagreed.

However, relatively few respondents appeared to be concerned about the ability of pediatricians to address the problem of misinformation, Ms. Gottschlich reported.

When asked to respond to the statement that the “community recognizes and uses pediatricians as trusted source for health information,” 87% agreed or strongly agreed. Of the remaining, 9% did not agree or disagree, leaving just 4% that disagreed or strongly disagreed.

For a similar but slightly different question, the consensus was even greater. To the statement “patients/families in your practice seek your input as a trusted source for health information,” 94% agreed or strongly agreed.

Encountering Misinformation

The survey went on to ask pediatricians about encounters with misinformation for seven specific issues. On the five-point Likert scale, the choices ranged from a few times per year to every day.

For reproductive health, gender-affirming care, and firearm injury prevention, about 80% of respondents answered at the very low end of the scale, meaning no more than about once per month. Encounters with misinformation was slightly greater with autism; nearly one third responded that they encountered misinformation once a week or more frequently.

For all three questions regarding vaccines, the proportions climbed substantially. Of these, the COVID-19 vaccine was the most common topic of misinformation, with more than half reporting that they addressed incorrect information once a week or more. Seven percent reported this occurs daily.

Nearly 40% of pediatricians responded that they dealt with misinformation about the HPV vaccine once per week or more, while 35% reported that they encountered misinformation this frequently about routine childhood vaccines. There was a small but not necessarily trivial proportion for each of these categories of vaccine who reported that they encountered misinformation on a daily basis.

When stratified by clinical focus, the encounters varied. For the COVID-19 vaccine, general pediatricians (67%) were far more likely to report addressing misinformation on a weekly or more frequent basis than hospitalists (39%) or subspecialists (46%). They were more than twice as likely to encounter misinformation about the HPV vaccine than hospitalists or pediatric subspecialists (46%, 17%, and 19%, respectively).

When stratified by urban, suburban, or rural practice areas, differences were relatively modest. Pediatricians in urban practices were less likely to face misinformation about HPV vaccine (29% vs 44% and 48% for suburban and rural areas, respectively), while pediatricians in rural practice were more likely to face misinformation about routine childhood vaccines (60% vs 33% and 35% for urban and suburban practices, respectively).

Differences were even narrower when misinformation encounters were compared among the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast. For the threshold of once per week or more commonly, misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine was less common in the South (50% vs 55%-58% in the other areas), while misinformation about routine childhood vaccines was more commonly encountered in the West (41% vs 32%-35% in the other areas).

A Growing Problem

The confidence among pediatricians that their knowledge is valued is reassuring, according to Ms. Gottschlich, who noted that the U.S. Surgeon General declared health misinformation a serious threat to public health in 2021, but the problem of misinformation is growing, according to several sources.

One of these sources, at least in regard to adolescent health, appears to be social media, according to a recently published review article in JAMA Pediatrics. The lead author of that article, Monica L. Wang, DSc, has dual academic appointments at the Boston University School of Public Health and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston. Asked for a comment on this issue, she suggested that it might not be enough to just respond to misinformation but rather might be better to develop a dialogue that will reveal misconceptions.

“Just as they screen for preventive issues like seat belt use, sunscreen, and safe sex practices, [pediatricians should integrate] questions about health misinformation into visits, which can be a natural and effective way to encourage dialogue, proactively share accurate information, and promote well-being,” she said.

Agreeing with the premise that pediatricians are a credible source of information for parents and children, Dr. Wang very much endorses the principle that “pediatricians can play a critical role in addressing health misinformation.”

Dr. Gottschlich and Dr. Wang report no potential conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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