While Americans still turn to traditional sources most often when seeking medical advice or information, a majority (61%) now say they also look online for health advice, up from only 25% in 2000, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The study, “The Social Life of Health Information Online,” (pdf) also found that though social networking is not a dominant activity for these so-called “e-patients,” e-patients are more likely than non-epatients to visit social-networking sites in general:
They are increasingly using mobile access to discuss health topics.
Top Health Sources
When asked about the sources they turn to when they need information or assistance in dealing with health or medical issues, an overwhelming majority of American adults turn to health professionals and trusted friends and family:
- 86% of all adults ask a health professional, such as a doctor.
- 68% of all adults ask a friend or family member.
- 57% of all adults use the internet.
- 54% use books or other printed reference material.
- 33% contact their insurance provider.
- 5% use another source not mentioned in the list.
E-Patients Seek Similar Cases
The study found that when health consumers go online, they often are looking for immediately accessible information that has been posted by someone they feel is in similar situation. For example:
- 41% of e-patients have read someone else’s commentary or experience about health or medical issues on an online news group, website or blog.
- 24% of e-patients have consulted rankings or reviews online of doctors or other providers.
- 24% of e-patients have consulted rankings or reviews online of hospitals or other medical facilities.
- 19% of e-patients have signed up to receive updates about health or medical issues.
- 13% of e-patients have listened to a podcast about health or medical issues.
On the other hand, comparatively few are actively writing or creating new health content online:
- 6% of e-patients have tagged or categorized online content about health or medical issues.
- 6% of e-patients report that they have posted comments, queries or information about health or medical matters in an online discussion, listserv or other online group forum.
- 5% of e-patients say they have posted comments about health on a blog.
- 5% of e-patients have posted a review online of a doctor.
- 4% of e-patients have posted a review online of a hospital.
- 4% have shared photos, videos or audio files online about health or medical issues.
Social Networking Lags for Health
The study found that those who seek medical information online are more likely to consult a range of online social networking and information sites, including
Despite the growing importance of social networking sites in other areas of many online Americans’ lives, the Pew study found that they are used only sparingly for health queries and updates, and that few people use them to gather and share health information.
- 39% of e-patients use a social-networking site like MySpace and Facebook and, of those, only a small portion have followed their friends’ personal health experiences or updates, posted their own health-related comments, gotten any health information or joined a health-related group.
- 12% of e-patients use Twitter or another service to share updates about themselves or to see updates about others, and of those, few have posted comments, queries or information about health or medical matters.
Online Inquiries Have Positive Effect
The study found that health inquiries have an impact on decisions or actions and there are clearly more positive experiences than negative ones. For example, among the six-in-10 e-patients who say their most recent search had an impact on their own health or the way they care for someone else:
- 60% say the information found online affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.
- 56% say it changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help take care of.
- 53% say it lead them to ask a doctor new questions, or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
- 49% say it changed the way they think about diet, exercise or stress management.
- 38% say it affected a decision about whether to see a doctor.
- 38% say it changed the way they cope with a chronic condition or manage pain.
Fully 42% of all adults, or 60% of e-patients, say they or someone they know has been helped by following medical advice or health information found on the internet, Pew said. This represents a significant increase since 2006 when 25% of all adults, or 31% of e-patients, said the same.
Just 3% of all adults, or 3% of e-patients, say they or someone they know has been harmed by following medical advice or health information found on the internet, a finding that has remained stable since 2006.
Surge in Exercise & Fitness Info
The percentage of American adults getting exercise and fitness information online has jumped from 21% in 2002 to 38% now – an 88% growth, and a more rapid increase than any other health topic covered in the survey, Pew found.
In addition to fitness, the following percentages of adults report getting information about these topics:
Additional study findings:
- E-patients with mobile access to the internet are more likely than those who have wired access to contribute their comments and reviews to the online conversation about health and health care.
- Adults ages 18 – 49 are more likely than older adults to participate in social technologies related to health.
- Half all online health inquiries (52%) are made on behalf of someone other than the person typing in the search terms, and two-thirds of e-patients talk with someone else (either online or in-person) about what they find online, most often a friend or spouse.