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Study: Pregnant Women Hungry For Better Info Earlier On

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The "+" sign pops up on your pregnancy test. You call the office of the obstetrician you've chosen for just this eventuality, and the receptionist congratulates you and sets you an appointment four or six or eight weeks away.  "But," you think, "I have so many questions now!" The books aren't enough. So you turn, of course, to Google, and navigate the thickets of information alone.

If this was your pregnancy experience and it struck you as odd or off or wrong, you're not alone, according to a recent small study that likely reflects a far broader opinion. Writes one pregnant friend: "My docs are wonderful and insanely knowledgeable, and I call them for the big stuff. However, there’s so much little stuff when you’re pregnant, especially for the first time. It’s constant googling, is this normal? Everything from symptoms, food, exercise routines, massages, whether to dye your hair – it’s endless."

And some things you need to know early, she notes. "I did have the books – I found the Mayo Clinic guide to a healthy pregnancy to be quite good. But, not so easily searchable, especially when you’re at dinner and you’re like, 'Can I eat xyz?' My husband downloaded a few apps right away that allow you to search what you can eat, what to avoid. Some are obvious: alcohol, sushi, some way less so – um, lunch meat?"

From the study's press release:

Pregnant women are using the Internet to seek answers to their medical questions more often than they would like, say Penn State researchers.

"We found that first-time moms were upset that their first prenatal visit did not occur until eight weeks into pregnancy," said Jennifer L. Kraschnewski, assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences, Penn State College of Medicine. "These women reported using Google and other search engines because they had a lot of questions at the beginning of pregnancy, before their first doctor's appointment."

Following the women's first visit to the obstetrician, many of them still turned to the Internet — in the form of both search engines and social media — to find answers to their questions, because they felt the literature the doctor's office gave them was insufficient.

Despite the rapid evolution of technology, the structure of prenatal care has changed little over the past century in the U.S., the researchers said.

Kraschnewski and colleagues set out to gather information to develop a smartphone app for women to use during pregnancy, and incidentally discovered that many women were unsatisfied with the structure of their prenatal care.

The researchers conducted four focus groups, totaling 17 pregnant women — all of whom were over 18 and owned a smartphone. Most of the mothers-to-be agreed that the structure of prenatal visits are not responsive to their individual needs, so they turned to technology to fill their knowledge gaps, Kraschnewski and colleagues reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research. However, the women were unsatisfied by the questionable accuracy of the information they found online.

That was exactly my friend's experience: She found sites like babycenter.com helpful, but worried that much of what she read had not been medically vetted:

"I will also mention the love/hate relationship with the site forums. Sometimes, they are wildly reassuring, with women writing in with similar experiences. But plenty of other times they are downright alarming. It’s impossible to know who to trust, and there are very few moderators. One or two sites I’ve seen do have doctors weigh in, but it’s unclear who they are."

And even once women got to the doctor, the study found them unsatisfied, data-wise:

Many of the participants found the pamphlets and flyers that their doctors gave them, as well as the once popular book "What to Expect When You're Expecting," outdated and preferred receiving information in different formats. They would rather watch videos and use social media and pregnancy-tracking apps and websites.

"This research is important because we don't have a very good handle on what tools pregnant women are using and how they engage with technology," said Kraschnewski, also an affiliate of the Penn State Institute for Diabetes and Obesity. "We have found that there is a real disconnect between what we're providing in the office and what the patient wants."

Kraschnewski calls for figuring out better ways to provide good information to patients. Readers, thoughts? I can imagine such simple solutions — a receptionist asking for a patient's email or phone number during that first phone call and sending over the office's favored online resources, including instructions for taking prenatal vitamins and avoiding alcohol. But that didn't happen when I was pregnant a decade ago. In your experience, is it happening more now?

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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