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One in Three American Adults Use the Internet to Diagnose Medical Conditions but Majority Still Depend on Healthcare Professionals for Information

17 Jan 2013 | by Nancy Fabozzi
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Findings from a recent study by the Pew Research Center reveal that thirty five percent of U.S. adults have gone online within the past twelve months to diagnose a medical condition that they, or someone else, might have.

Source: Susannah Fox and Maeve Duggan. Health Online 2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project, January 15, 2013. 

The study is the latest health-related survey conducted as part of Pew’s Internet & American Life Project that began in 2000 with the objective of measuring the social impact of the internet across the U.S. population. Health Online 2013 contains responses from 3,014 U.S. adults obtained from telephone interviews conducted from August 7 to September 6, 2012. In addition to an analysis of how people use the internet for medical diagnosis, the report covers a range of issues around general health information seeking behavior including a look at the most common health-related topics searched for online. Survey data are segmented by respondents’ gender, age, income, educational level, and insurance status. The report also looks at the use of smartphones in searching health information as well as peer-to-peer health information seeking behavior.

Select Findings

The study identifies two key categories of user types segmented from the 81 percent of the U.S. population that uses the internet—specifically, “online health seekers” and “online diagnosers”. Online health seekers are those that say they looked online for health information within the past year. This category consists of 72 percent of the total internet user population, with women, younger people, white adults, and those in higher income and education brackets dominating. Of this population, the vast majority, or 77 percent, began their search with a search engine such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo; 13 percent began with a health information specific website like WebMD; 2 percent began at a more general site like Wikipedia; and 1 percent began at a social network site like Facebook. Online diagnosers are a sub-segment (59 percent) of online health seekers and categorized as those that say they have gone online specifically to identify a medical condition they or someone else might have. This group constitutes 35 percent (one in three) of U.S. adults. Of this population, 53 percent say that they followed up with a clinician after their web search while 46 percent did not.

Additional findings of interest include -

  • 41 percent of online diagnosers ultimately had their diagnosis confirmed by a physician
  • 52 percent of smartphone owners have looked up health information on their phone, compared with just 6 percent of other cell phone owners
  • 26 percent of online health seekers have been asked to pay for access to information while just 2 percent did so

The study authors conclude that, despite the relatively large number of people seeking health-related information online, most people are still dependent on their healthcare providers for direct, or offline, information. Specifically, the study finds that 70 percent of all U.S. adults sought information, care, or support from a doctor or other health care professional; 60 percent sought information or support from friends and family; and 24 percent sought information or support from peers (those with similar conditions).

Implications for Providers and IT Vendors

People are naturally curious about medical conditions and often seek to learn more via numerous on-and offline channels. Today, many Americans are taking a more proactive approach to managing their healthcare and seek to have a more informed interaction with their providers. Thus, it comes as no surprise that many people turn to the web, or “Dr. Google”, for health-related information. But what are some of the pros and cons of doing so? In terms of pros, the internet offers immediate, 24/7 access to information, especially when the web is accessed through a mobile device like a smartphone. As indicated in the Health Online 2013 report, most people start a health-related query at a search engine like Google as this is the most familiar and user-friendly option. Google allows one to “cast the net widely” in terms of the initial search strategy (which can be good and bad). The fact that large numbers of people use Google to look for health information or to diagnose symptoms is also beneficial for health researchers. Aggregated online search behavior is now being analyzed to track health trends across a defined population. The Google flu tracker has been in the news quite a bit lately and is a good example of this.

On the downside, there are many concerns about the trustworthiness, or authority, of medical information found on the open web in additional to potential problems with lack of information specificity, accuracy, and timeliness, all of which can result in potentially harmful misinformation. Most people deploy unsophisticated and very general online search strategies that can yield millions of results from millions of sources and, usually, only the top few results are selected for viewing. In addition, the quality of information found through search engines can vary significantly, which may lead a person to over- or underestimate the seriousness of the situation.

Healthcare providers are entering into a new era of outcomes-based reimbursement which will entail the need to maximize the quality of care to ensure the greatest safety and efficacy. As a result, providers will increasingly step up efforts around patient education. Many providers will employ online solutions like patient portals that will offer a way for people to easily seek out health related information in addition to performing other communication and administrative tasks with their providers. We foresee a great uptick in the adoption of patient portals during the coming years and firmly believe that this technology can go a long way in helping patients get access to information that can help them understand and better manage their health status. However, even if a provider offers a patient portal, it is still highly likely that many, if not most, people will continue to use the internet to access health-related information. Therefore, it is important that providers have a strategy to educate patients about the smartest way to use the open web when seeking health information and to encourage them to reach out to qualified health professionals when they have questions about the information they find on via Google, Facebook, or even through peer-reviewed medical literature found through WebMD or Medline. Health IT vendors must also keep close tabs on how online searching behavior is evolving among various population segments and use that information to develop products with user-friendly search capabilities that closely mimic the Google experience albeit it with more targeted and robust search results.

Providers should take comfort in the fact that the Pew research confirms that they are still the central source for health information for most people. Also, the fact that people are becoming more comfortable with searching online for information, as opposed to in person or via a phone call, is also encouraging for providers who are thinking about deploying a patient portal.