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TECHNOLOGY: Cyberchondria and “online-itis stalls”–Looking back at old forecasts

Harris Interactive is out with its latest analysis of how many adults are online and who’s using the Internet for health information. After massive growth through the last decade, the number of adults online has stalled at around 69%, with 3/4 of those being online health seekers or “cyberchondriacs”–equating to around 51% overall. (The number of kids online is much greater–it tends to be the over-65s who are not online as frequently).

So the fast growth is over, and any future growth in online usage will probably be an aging out effect. Don’t forget that you just witnessed the fastest technology penetration in history, and all because the Pentagon wanted to send messages to its missile silos in the 1960s.

So this gives me a neat opportunity to remember what a great futurist I was (ha, ha). I’ve recently fessed up to several forecasts made in the Health and Health Care 2010 publication that, at the least, have to turn around to come close to matching current reality (particularly the bit about aggressive health care payers working to reduce costs over the Zeros….). Well back in 1996 in an IFTF report called Telehealth (we wish we’d called it eHealth) we had a nearly right explanation about the growth of online activity based on access to in-home appliances like PCs. Some of the technology is wrong (the Network PC never made it) but look the numbers, and you’ll see we were pretty close:

    In its potential for mass applications, then, telehealth clearly represents a new market that is likely to have new and far-reaching impacts on patient care, provider organizations, and even consumer-focused pharmaceutical provision. How important it becomes and how quickly it becomes important depends on partly on its acceptance by physicians, patients and others involved in health care, but more importantly on the information infrastructure needed to run them. The key piece is consumer access. If the home computer becomes ubiquitous, then health care functions will be found to run on it, and telehealth will have a chance to take hold and take off. Currently 38% of American households have PCs, while 20% of U.S. adults have accessed the Internet or used online services. The important question for telehealth is, how likely is the penetration of PCs and other information of appliances to grow and by how much?

    We conducted an internal workshop at IFTF in order to forecast the penetration of information appliances with the capabilities of 1996 home PCs with modems into U.S. households over the next ten years. This definition obviously includes both cable modem systems and the coming Network Computer (NC), as well as anything else Silicon Valley’s late night pizza eaters dream up in the next few years. Our consensus forecast was that by 2000, 50% to 55% of American households would have these appliances, and that by 2005, 65% to 70% would be equipped. Some of our outliers felt that this was much too low and that the appliances would be as common as color TV (i.e., 95% plus by 2005).

PC penetration is now around 61% and other forms of access to the Internet (including access to appliances like web TV, PDAs, and access at libraries and internet cafes) take us to 69% of adults online), our forecast of 65-70% by 2005 looks pretty good. With the preponderance of cable modems and other new technologies, it’s a fair bet that even the 95% level of adults online will be reachable by 2010, even if many people won’t want or need to use the technology. The rest of the growth in this market will be the aging out effect as todays kids become tommorow’s consumers until, like the phone and the TV, the Internet is part of the fabric of modern life for everyone.

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