November 22, 2000

Study Shows That Internet Searches are Affecting Users’ Health-care Decisions

Washington (Noon, November 26, 2000) ­ Half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say this information has improved the way they take care of themselves and many report that online information has directly affected their decisions about how to treat illness and deal with their doctors, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

One unique part of the study involved a survey that asked Internet users to describe the most recent time they went online for health information. Some 47% of the people who were seeking health information for themselves say the online material influenced their decisions about treatment and care and 36% of those seeking information on behalf of others say it influenced their decisions.

These Internet users say the specific impact was that the information drawn from the Web helped them decide how to treat an illness, prepped them to ask more questions of their doctors or seek second opinions, and helped them decide whether to go to the doctor or not.

These are among the key findings about the Internet”s role in Americans” medical decisions emerges from several surveys taken by the Pew Internet Project and released in a report entitled “The online health care revolution: How the Web helps Americans take better care of themselves.” The report finds that 52 million American adults have sought health and medical information on the Web and it calls them “health seekers.” A majority of them go online at least once a month to get health information.

“The emergence of this group ­ the health seekers ­ illustrates perhaps the most profound and dramatic impact the Internet is having on Americans,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “In an era when the facetime a patient gets with a doctor during an average appointment has dipped below 15 minutes, many are turning to the Web get the information they crave so that they can make decisions about how to care for themselves and their loved ones.”

This growing reliance of Americans on the Internet for health information raises several important issues. Most Internet users are worried about their online privacy, especially when it comes to the sensitive subject of their medical information. Fully 89% of health seekers say they are worried that Internet companies will collect and share data about the Web sites they visited; 85% say they fear that insurance companies might change their coverage after finding out what online information they accessed; and 52% fret that their employers might learn what kind of medical material they accessed.

These surveys also found that the search strategies of online health seekers are scattershot. Most report that the last time they went hunting online for health information they got the facts they needed. But they relied on Internet searches without the benefit of professional advice and often got information from Web sites they had never heard of before they began the search.

“This should be a wake-up call to medical professionals: Patients are action-oriented when they go online for health information and they will search for it any way they can,” says Susannah Fox, Director of Research at the Pew Internet Project and the principal author of this study. “They would probably like help from their doctors in pointing them to the best places for these Internet searches and they really want doctors to answer the questions that emerge during that research about how to treat the sick.”

The report highlights the fact that women are much more likely than men to use the Internet to get health and medical information. It also points out that the online behavior of those in excellent health differs from those who are in less-than-excellent health and that the result of the search often depends on whether the health seeker is looking for information on behalf of herself or on behalf of someone else.

Some other key findings from the Pew Internet Project report:

  • 26% of health seekers have gone online to get information about mental illness; and 16% of health seekers have used the Internet to get information on a sensitive health subject that is hard to talk about.
  • Very few health seekers use the Internet to interact with their doctors (only 9% have exchanged emails with the doctor), few have purchased medicine or vitamins, and few have consulted online doctors.
  • Asked about their most recent search for health information, 54% of health seekers said they were looking on behalf of someone else; 43% were looking for themselves.
  • 63% of health seekers oppose the idea of keeping medical records online, even at a secure, password-protected site, because they fear other people will see those records.
  • 81% of health seekers think people should be able to sue a health or medical if it gives away information about its customers after saying it would not. There is no current federal policy that gives them such a right to sue.The findings come from several surveys. Figures about the size and composition of the health-seeker cohort come from surveys conducted almost continuously from March 1 to August 20. In those, 12,751 adults age 18 and over were interviewed and 6,413 of them are Internet users. Findings about privacy came from questions asked in a survey in July and August of 2,109 persons, some 1,101 of whom are Internet users. Finally, a special survey of 521 health seekers was conducted in August to probe more deeply into their behavior and attitudes, with a special focus on the search they conducted during the last time they went online for health information.