I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Arnott Smith about her book Combating Online Health Misinformation: A Professional’s Guide to Helping the Public. The book is available now from Rowman & Littlefield.
Lauren: Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Catherine: I am Catherine Arnott Smith, PhD, one of the three coeditors of Combating Online Health Misinformation: A Professional’s Guide to Helping the Public. I’m a former medical librarian and a longtime professor at the Information School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; my coeditors are both at the National Library of Medicine: Alla Keselman, PhD, is Acting Director of the Office of Engagement and Training, and Amanda J. Wilson, MSLS, is Deputy Associate Director for Library Operations.
Lauren: Briefly summarize Combating Online Health Misinformation: A Professional’s Guide to Helping the Public.
Catherine: This is a book for all professionals who work with and teach the public – and/or emerging professionals – about medical information and thus about medical misinformation. It goes beyond librarians and libraries alone. If professionals of any type support the public in dealing with health misinformation, the professionals, themselves, need support.
So the chapters are written by researchers and practitioners in the fields of library science but also medical informatics, health communication, folklore, health education, design, medicine and public health. So that’s also our audience!
Lauren: Why did you decide to edit this book?
Catherine: This book was conceived, as an idea, in summer 2020. The year before, Dr Keselman and I had already published a study about the quality of health information found in online videos, including YouTube. So we were interested in misinformation before it was cool. The Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying infodemic then obviously gave us a particularly urgent example of the importance of distinguishing good information from potentially harmful information.
Lauren: What are the biggest challenges librarians face today regarding online health misinformation?
Catherine: They’re big and also very old challenges. The biggest, in my personal opinion, is the fact that users don’t have intermediaries helping them anymore. They’re on their own unless they ask for help. When they finally do involve a librarian, there’s a lot for that librarian to teach them about.
Users do not necessarily understand how medical information is produced and the steps that authoritative authors and publishers take – the scientific method! Peer review! – to achieve a result you can trust. As a society, we’ve come to prioritize speed of publication over quality of content.
But concerns about harms of health information have recurred throughout human history whenever the audience changes for that information. Gatekeepers—like librarians but also educators and webmasters—have always been a bit nervous about losing control over those gates. Obviously, online access multiplies the problem because the potential impacts of misinformation are much greater the more that misinformation can be shared.
Lauren: What are two practical steps librarians can take to combat online health misinformation?
Catherine: The battle starts with us as individuals. Take time to educate yourself about the problem. A good jumping-off point is this page from the National Library of Medicine’s consumer health information service, MedlinePlus. It walks you through the most important questions to ask yourself about a particular health claim or website. There’s an interactive tutorial, too. Then think about resources in your local community that speak to the people whom you serve in your library with their particular information needs, literacy skills, their strengths and their vulnerabilities. There’s a chapter in our book on Critical Health Literacy, authored by my coeditor Amanda J. Wilson and librarian Laura Bartlett. It focuses on community engagement as a strategy.
Lauren: What do you hope readers of this book walk away with?
Catherine: There are thousands of published articles and plenty of books about information literacy but Combating Online Health Misinformation is different. Ours is an e-Health literacy perspective on misinformation. eHealth literacy was defined by the researchers Norman & Skinner as the ability to appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem. It’s a completely different skill from health literacy and needs to be measured – and understood! – differently. We hope that readers walk away appreciating the rich potential for quality medical information online.
Lauren: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Catherine: I would like to let everyone know there’s a table of contents available at the publisher’s webpage for interested readers:
 Keselman, A., Smith, C.A., Murcko, A., & Kaufman, D. (2018). Evaluating the Quality of Health Information in a Changing Digital Ecosystem. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 21. doi:10.2196/11129.
Norman, C. D., & Skinner, H. A. (2006). eHealth Literacy: Essential Skills for Consumer Health in a Networked World. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(2), e9. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.8.2.e9.
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter and interviewer on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.
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