Three-quarters of Internet users seek health info

The Pew Internet Project released the latest estimate for the e-patient population: 75 percent of internet users. Here are some details from the survey.Epatients

My colleagues recently updated our top three trend charts: Who’s Online, Internet Activities, and Daily Internet Activities.

Two of the new data points relate to health and health care. The October-December 2007 national phone survey shows that 75 percent of internet users answered yes to the single-line question, "Do you ever use the internet to look for health or medical information?"

Ten percent of internet users say they searched for health information "yesterday," which in a tracking survey like this one yields a picture of the "typical day" online. Health has moved up in the "typical day" list (from 7 percent in 2006 to the current 10 percent of internet users), but for most people the average day includes lots of emails (60 percent of internet users), general searches (49 percent), and news reading (39 percent) if they are online at all (30 percent of internet users are offline on a typical day).

The usual patterns among the basic demographic groups hold true:

  • 68% of online men look online for health info
  • 81% of online women
  • 76% of white internet users
  • 65% of African-American internet users
  • 71% of English-speaking Hispanic internet users (new health data on the whole Latino population is coming out August 13 from the Pew Hispanic Center)
  • 68% of 18-29 year-old internet users
  • 78% of 30-49s
  • 76% of 50-64s
  • 71% of internet users age 65+ (but remember, only one-third of seniors go online at all)

The Oct-Dec 2007 survey is also distinguished by the fact that we included a group of cell phone users in our sample. We believe this is an important part of capturing an accurate picture of the U.S. population since 14.5% of all American adults live in households with only wireless phones (see "Polling in the age of cell phones").

What do these numbers have to do with participatory medicine? I have seen our data used over and over to convince policy makers, medical professionals, investors, and even patients themselves that the internet is an important source of health information and a force for change in health care (whether for good or for ill). I’m like an ammunition dealer in the internet wars — all sides use our data since the Pew Internet Project does not endorse technologies, industry sectors, or outcomes.

In the end, what I said in March still holds true whether the estimate is 75 percent or 80 percent of internet users seeking health information online: When this many internet users are doing something, the horse is out of the barn.

The Pew Internet Project will update our 17 health topic trend data in a survey to be fielded this fall but we are collecting ideas about what else we should ask e-patients. I would love to hear new ideas either here in the comments or via email: What are your observations? Which health social media applications are gaining traction? What are you worried about? What are you excited about? What’s next?

9 replies »

  1. Half of Internet users say they will use the Internet next time they have a medical inquiry–the same per-centage as those who say they will contact a medical professional.

  2. Thank you for all the thoughtful comments! This post went live the day before my vacation and this is the first chance I’ve had to write back. And who knows who is still listening, but here we go…
    Charles Brown: Your inverted pyramid idea immediately called to mind some slides that Tom Ferguson developed years ago. Take a look and please let me know what you think: http://www.e-patients.net/archives/2008/07/steal_these_sli.html
    John Horton: One of the top searches on the Pew Internet Project’s site is “drugs” and our “Prescription Drugs Online” report came out in 2004! Please take a look and let me know if any of the questions are still relevant: http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/139/report_display.asp

  3. Susannah,
    Great article, and important research. One of the important challenges involves balancing access and safety, particularly with the difficulty in determining which online pharmacies are “legitimate” and which are not — a question made more difficult by the lack of definitive national standards on the question. Moreover, prescription drug abuse is now the second largest drug abuse problem in the nation (see National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9/07) — but at the same time, there are legitimate issues related to access.
    One of the interesting questions to explore in future research might be Internet user behavior related to the acquisition of prescription drugs online — some studies have been done in the past, but I think that there is a dearth of solid analysis on the topic. At LegitScript (www.legitscript.com), we now estimate about 850 legitimate online pharmacies versus more than 25,000 “rogue” online pharmacies, based on our ongoing evaluations and research. Although we’ve developed comprehensive standards for differentiating between the two categories, it would be interesting to better understand consumer behavior and perceptions in trying to differentiate among the two.
    Good information, and looking forward to future reports.
    John Horton
    On the web: http://www.legitscript.com

  4. Hi Susannah,
    What I’m excited about is patient communities coming together to share their knowledge and help each other feel better. When researchers and doctors are thrown in to the mix too, it can lead to the idea of “open source health research” – a collaborative way to find cures for the conditions that cause daily suffering for millions of people.
    I’m happy to discuss more, and looking forward to your upcoming survey! I’d be interested in asking patients how much health information they are willing to share online, and for what purposes (research/health tracking/keeping your doctor up to date), how private/secure they need it to be, and how they view the personalization/transparency issue (blogged by Kevin Kelly here http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/05/total_personliz.php)
    Thanks for asking!
    Alexandra Carmichael

  5. Susannah, always great information from the “arms dealers’ – though I wouldn’t go too far with that analogy. But some data that I think would be useful to know if it can be included in next surveys:
    Most frequent health sites visited – govt, insurance-sponsored, ‘usually search,’ blogs, company-sponsored
    Where get ideas for health sites to trust/look at – search engines, friends, doctor/health care provider, blog recommendations, social network sites
    During last search for health information for yourself or family member – how started (search engine, specific site, recommendation)? How many sites visited before considered you had enough information (stopped)

  6. I am all for health consumers to educate themselves “responsibly”. I do stress responsibly. I work in healthcare and far too many times I see patients come into my office wanting what they see in commercials, without knowing what the treatment is and if it is something that is appropriate for them. However, I do use it as an opportunity to educate. Healthcare is a partnership between the patient and their provider.

  7. Continuing congratulations to Pew Internet and The American Life Project for their expanding look at health care internet usage.
    Recently, the concept of “participatory medicine” has surfaced on the health internet. The time has arrived where not only professionals but patients, family members and care givers, will need to access the best educational and academic health resources on the web. This new electronic health platform has changed the face of medical practice for everyone worldwide. This new era will provide the opportunity for improving the standards of patient care, reducing errors, improving access to medical resources, reshaping the traditional doctor-patient relationship and improving patient outcomes.
    Let us all work together to help bring excellence to the medical community. It is imperative that we make this one of our most important goals for health care delivery.
    My new book will help to deliver the best of the professional medical world to everyone worldwide — go to http://www.drweinbergsguide.com for the best health resources on the web.
    So, here’s to everyones best health!!

  8. Currently I feel like it is important for citizens especially in the U.S. to go online to find out health care information. There are too many disparities between the way health care is operated in the U.S. and other countries.

  9. A Paradigm shift in healthcare delivery can facilitate National, Universal Access to healthcare for all Americans
    I’m a career federal government employee and I know that depending on the Federal government to fix the National Healthcare System is a non-starter. I’ve never been in the medical profession but I’m a Technoprogressive and a Futurist and I believe that by bringing to bear a LOT of advanced IT, and other medical technologies towards these issues we have a shot at creating a cost-effective and efficacious National Healthcare System with universal access. The model I have in mind involves the use of telemedicine to push the vast majority of primary care out of the institutional setting and down into the “Home Care” environment. I feel that by employing Telemedicine technology in the home, combined with Personal/Electronic Medical Records, that’ll enable & empower the average healthcare consumer to monitor their own health and to manage minor injuries as well as relatively complex chronic diseases and comply with healthy behavioral, dietary and lifestyle changes in a more cooperative manner. By taking advantage of the amount of households in this nation have PC’s and Internet access, the average household can access a vast array of healthcare related information and websites with all sorts of tools and plans and management protocols that can be easily modified for individual households, and families. Care plans for individual persons within a household can be implemented and compliance can be monitored through numerous telemedicine peripheral devices. Telemedicine can allow individuals to monitor their own health in the privacy in their own homes and also provide their clinicians with an unprecedented surveillance capability so that they can keep an eye on their patient’s health (subject to their patience compliance with the reporting protocol). I feel that instead of all of the classical solutions that are currently being offered, that what’s needed is to reengineer the entire infrastructure so that all care except various types of intensive care, trauma & surgeries that can’t be performed on an outpatient basis are pushed out into the community on a much more extensive basis than they are currently. The model that I’ve been developing envisions care being rendered in an inverted pyramid with telemedicine in the home at the bottom, at the next highest level of care would involve receiving a homecare visit from a trained caregiver, at the next highest level of care would be referrals to outpatient clinics, express clinics in Malls (or big box retailers like Wal-Mart or Kmart) or MRI/CT centers, Ambulatory SurgiCenters/Day SurgiCenters or specialty care clinics and at the highest level of abstraction within the health care system, care would be rendered in hospitals that render services only in an intensive, acute care setting. Hospitals would also host the central telemedicine control centers from which primary care would be rendered remotely direct into the homes of patients. All other care would be rendered at a lower (but appropriate) level of abstraction within the healthcare system. In this way, a great deal of the physical infrastructure (and its associated costs) that currently constitutes our national healthcare system can be disintermediated. In addition, all of the clinics and SurgiCenters, and the hospitals can be networked on high-speed backbone that can also support the telemedicine system so that vast amounts of data and images can be shared effortlessly. Rendering as much Primary care in the home as is practicable thru the use of telemedicine combined with homecare visits will facilitate the implementation of preventative healthcare protocols & comprehensive chronic disease management protocols. The way I see it, if you can push the “healthcare system” down into individuals homes, and use it to promote healthier, wellness lifestyles with a preventative theme, then that should lesson the necessity of so many ER visits & re-hospitalizations or the (load) that is placed on the healthcare system. If the load is lessened, then that should provide opportunities for disintermediating brick & mortar healthcare infrastructure.