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How do seniors acquire health information online? Students — and the YMCA — find out.

A turning point in the way Charlotte residents learn about their health is creating new ways for senior citizens to acquire medical information, and for university students to discover how they can contribute to a growing field.

Local and national research indicates the way people acquire healthcare information depends partly on the decade when they were born. Older generations tend to distrust online information and place more confidence in face-to-face conversations with medical professionals. Younger generations start online and then back it up — usually — with in-person medical consultation.

As an organization focused on strengthening the health of Charlotte residents, the YMCA of Greater Charlotte faces a decision. How much should it invest in creating resources at bricks-and-mortar facilities, and how much in online sources hosted by the organization?

A research project conducted by students and faculty at the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University is taking steps to find out.

“This project is part of a larger endeavor that we started in the fall of 2017 when I created a course called ‘Digital Health Literacy’ as part of the health communication minor in the Knight School of Communication. With a Title III grant, this course sought to teach undergraduate students about applied research in the Charlotte community. Through a collaborative partnership with the YMCA and ongoing support from Digital Charlotte, students researched the way people experienced and made sense of online health-related information,” said Dr. Zachary White, associate professor of communication. In the course, students researched the way people experienced and made sense of online health-related information.

“We conducted six total focus groups across three different YMCAs in Charlotte to better understand not what we thought was happening, but to better understand the experiences of participants in terms of what they were most concerned about,” White said. “What were the challenges or obstacles that they faced when trying to find and access information about their doctors, or about health conditions, or being able to navigate online, or about how they might interact with physicians? We examined two specific populations. Parents were one group, and the other was active older adults, 65 and older.”

The class analyzed results and data from the six groups and developed recommendations. After a December 2017 presentation to YMCA Charlotte executive management, the YMCA decided to further investigate a pilot program focused on active older adults.

Faculty and students then used the fall semester research to create educational programming designed to help active older adults at the YMCA find and make sense of online health information.

“We knew their challenges and worries and were able to figure out how to scaffold this material over a six-week learning program specifically designed for active older adults — not only helping them develop specific digital literacy skills, but also helping them enhance social capital,” White said. “What’s so essential in the delivery of these modules is that we knew from our research that active older adults sometimes benefit from having a social component to the teaching and learning of digital skills.”

One of the Queens students from the fall semester research course, communication major Nicole Figueroa, served as lead facilitator in March and April of 2018 for three six-week pilot educational programs in “Navigating Online Health Information” at the Simmons, Stratford-Richardson, and Brace branches of the Charlotte YMCA.

Five weeks into the six-week program, Figueroa said the confidence level of her adult students was way up. One class assignment, for example, was researching a menu for a dinner that will include a child recently diagnosed with celiac disease. Students rapidly called up information on the disease from websites maintained by the Mayo Clinic, MedlinePlus, Healthline, Health on the Net Foundation, and YMCA Charlotte.

Their classroom interaction was significant, Figueroa said. “We really wanted to build on the YMCA as a culture of caring, as a community that cares for one another. I see that in the classroom, when they’re working with each other, helping each other out, sharing information that they find.”

What did adults learn in the six-week program? “They have to be patient when they’re researching something online,” Figueroa said. “When they’re just starting out, the results listing from Google seems endless. So we’ve gone through a first-impressions checklist to make sure that the website is trustworthy, has reliable information, resources, and contact information.

“I’ve also learned some patience,” Figueroa said. “There’s such a wide variety of skill levels. Some people don’t know how to turn on a computer. Sometimes I need to disregard the plans we’ve created to just go with the flow of what’s happening, and the questions they have, right there in the moment.”

At the Stratford-Richardson YMCA, Gloria Wall said the class made her feel like a student again. “It’s been very good in terms of determining the accuracy of information that we get, let’s say on celiac disease, and determining whether it’s a reliable source.”

The next step in the project, said professor White, is for the Knight School and the YMCA to conduct focus groups that evaluate learnings and outcomes from the pilot, which will then be published. The research could lead to a model for scaling the program at the YMCA and other organizations.

One key take-away, White said, is the impact of the program on university students. “Civically engaged research can make a difference not only in the lives of community members, but in the way students see themselves working beyond graduation. It can address community-based problems and challenges, as well as transform the lives of students who see themselves leveraging what they learn in the classroom into the community, in ways that make a difference for all parties involved.”

Other reliable sources of health information

National Institutes of Health
University of Michigan Health Service
U.S. Federal Trade Commission
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
University of California at San Francisco Health Service
U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Academy of Family Physicians
Kaiser Health News
BBC Health News