This question is for only some of the Stack Exchange sites. It is applicable to more than one, so I decided to post it here.

There are increasing site variation on Stack Exchange, Parenting, Pets, and, less so, Cognitive Sciences all touch base with a community where self help questions can be posed or edited into the guise of a more general question. Although we do not give medical advice, the answers to many questions can become equivalent to medical advice, as reassuring the parent of a newborn about behaviour or a condition, can become a potential obstacle to seeking medical attention. (Cognitive Sciences will occasionally get a person with poor mental health seeking advice.)

It is in the area of parenting this can be particularly vulnerable, as many new parents will seek online advice, and can feel neurotic (many of us are) and this can be the first port of call for parents struggling with the enormous and often overwhelming life change and responsibility of having a newborn.

I know one of the Community Manager's migrated a question off Pets to Parenting and was concerned about offering obstetric advice to pregnant women.

I understand Stack Exchange does not enter into the legalities of people implementing code they may find on it's sites, however I believe there is a duty of care when providing quality Question and Answer sites to a public involving the care of their children, pets and in some cases we get questions about mental health care.

This is being used as an example only Skin turns blue after long crying.

The only answer to this question is frankly wrong, had 4 up votes. So I provided an answer and promptly down voted the other answer, left multiple comments, flags and even email a Community Manager.

Was this extreme? I really don't know. As I cannot see this baby and we are only going by a description. An intrepid description, as it describes the onset of cyanosis after prolonged crying.

Stack Exchange does not encourage using flags for incorrect answers, it relies on the voting community.

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In the case where people are offering medical advice, whether directly or by providing an answer that says, it's all ok, it's normal, I think we need a custom flag, with some kind of protocol to handle this. In this case the OP thanked the person providing the incorrect answer, I suggest Stack Exchange implements a process where by the OP is contacted by email by the Community Managers, advising the person to not substitute the advice they received with expert medical attention.


I created a custom flag in this instance, but I am suggesting a protocol for Stack Exchange to handle these situations.

It may be worth Stack Exchange while to have an expert/s either employed or volunteering who receives such custom flagging and gives advice to the Community Managers and/or answers such flagged questions and/or has mod power or vote to delete such posts.

This question isn't to open a debate about me claiming that an answer is wrong. If you have medical evidence to the contrary and disagree with my answer, by all means do so on the site, but not here, please.

  • btw this is not the first instance of this. – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:44
  • It's also presumably a concern of SE, Inc., that they not have to defend themselves from lawsuits because of incorrect medical advice which they're "distributing" or whatever, although that's really their own matter to deal with. – jscs Nov 22 '13 at 7:53
  • @JoshCaswell totally agree! that is why this is a "tentative" feature request, as I am not purporting to be a legal expert on this, it is an area of "duty of care" which also has legalistic connotations, unfortunately it's balancing moral responsibility with legalities – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:54
  • It may be worth Stack Exchange while to have an expert/s either employed or volunteering who receives such custom flags. – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 8:04

Whenever we're made aware that a human life might be at risk, be it through speaking of self harm, speaking of harming another or speaking about a situation that we feel places a human life at harm, we do reach out to people and offer the best guidance that we can. Typically, that guidance is exactly as you described it - consult a licensed medical professional immediately.

Our moderators do in fact look out for this and have a direct line of communication with the entire community management team. However, you've got to be extremely descriptive when you flag something like this because you want as little room for misunderstanding as possible.

Always use the 'other' flag for this, and pass on the information as succinctly as you can. This is the same information that they'll pass along to us, which we might in turn communicate to the user when we contact them.

After flagging - you've done your duty and can and should relax. All we can do is reach out to the person in the most polite and non-intrusive way that the situation allows for, and urge them to get the proper help by having a professional hear their concerns at the earliest opportunity.

In this case, I've reached out to the parent to let them know that they should have their child examined by a pediatrician as soon as possible, just to make sure that the condition isn't something serious.

  • thanks Tim.. I have email access to you guys and know the ropes here, what about someone new to the site, who sees something, is there a way of having a custom handling flag thingy for this type of situation, so it does draw the right attention?? I mean apart from a custom flag. To ensure it does get through the channel of communication – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 9:32
  • also my bounty Q on tag synonyms has expired.. and is in grace period hint hint.. CM to answer meta.stackexchange.com/questions/207192/… – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 9:35
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    Flagging as 'other' is specifically designed to handle stuff like this, the exceptional things that happen quite rarely but do need to be handled. There's also a contact link in the footer of every site that folks can use, however flagging is going to be much faster for the most part. – Tim Post Nov 22 '13 at 9:35
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    @Skippy I honestly don't know the answer to your other question, or I would :) – Tim Post Nov 22 '13 at 9:36
  • BUT Tim it IS really important when creating tag synonyms hahahahahahha so funny for a programming site.. can you please put another bounty on it, I have run out of rep O>O – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 9:37

In general, SE sites should not offer personal medical advice at all. The Parenting FAQ even states that medical questions are off-topic.

The major problem with providing medical adivice (apart from the possible lack of expertise) is that we don't have enough information in most cases to actually diagnose issues even if we are able to do so in general. We only have the post by the asker, we can't take a look at the person, read their medical history or anything else a doctor usually does.

So any such questions should be closed, with a comment that strongly encourages the user to ask an actual doctor about the issue. Sites that receive such questions often should have a custom close reason for this (Biology.SE has this, for example).

That does not mean that medical topics are always off-topic, sites can deal with medical topics if they want to, but it should always be focused on the general case and on understanding the topic, not on specific treatment advice or diagnosis. For example, Biology.SE disallows personal medical advice, but if you want to understand the biology behind a specific medical issue, you're welcome to ask it on the site.

I would also recommend any site that allows medical topics to think hard about having a citation requirement like Skeptics has. Such a strict citation requirement is not a good idea for most sites, but it might be rather useful on medical topics due to the amount of wrong information circulating and the potential danger of being wrong.

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    I agree Mad S, but in the case where a Q&A slips through this criteria, then what. – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:44
  • citation requirement this is a good idea – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:47
  • Yes, a citation requirement is without question a good idea. Without meaning to say that I doubt your good intentions or knowledge, @Skippy, but just as an abstract matter, I, as an answer-seeker, have no way to judge the answers for correctness. It's essentially your word against the other's. – jscs Nov 22 '13 at 7:50
  • @JoshCaswell totally agree! and this is a concern. That is why I offered some citations to support my claims and in my custom flag asked the mods to get some expert opinions before dismissing the flag.. That is why I am suggesting some style of custom handling. – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:52
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    It seems from what Mad Scientist says that there is precendent for handling this sort of situition on other sites, @Skippy. You perhaps just need to raise it on the per-site Meta, get the community managers and moderators on board. Good luck! – jscs Nov 22 '13 at 7:54
  • @JoshCaswell I don't think there is a precedent for this particular issue, which is why I brought it here, I have witnessed this before and the issues around giving opinions about newborns and pregnant women, sick children and pets has potentially grave repercussions. There was one post with someone giving a pregnant woman advice to do yoga to increase amniotic fluid production! Which, if anyone has any medical knowledge is just NOT appropriate advice, nor is suggesting to increase amniotic fluid – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:58
  • @JoshCaswell and thanks for your feedback +1, as these are all the issues that are relevant to this topic. cheers (I don't expect it to be something to receive a definitive answer overnight) – user310756 Nov 22 '13 at 7:59

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