May 22, 2002

Vital Decisions

Most Internet users who seek health information online find the advice they’re looking for and are cautious about how they use it. But only a quarter of them follow experts’ advice to carefully check the credibility of their sources.

Medical librarians produce a guide for smart online health searches and great Web sites.

WASHINGTON (May 22) – Of the 73 million Americans who use the Internet to answer health questions, only about one quarter follow experts’ advice and thoroughly check the source and date of the information they find online. But the overwhelming majority of online health seekers say they get the information they need to help them make good medical decisions for themselves and for loved ones – even when they do quick, scattershot searches.

Some 61% of these health seekers, or 45 million Americans, say online information has improved the way they take care of their health – a significant jump from 48% of online health searchers who reported such improvements when we did a similar survey in August 2000.

Experts say that Internet users should set aside ample time for a health search, including time to check a health Web site’s sponsor, check the date of the information, and visit four to six sites.

In practice, a typical searcher visits two to five sites during an average visit, typically finding them via a search engine or general portal. She (women are more likely than men to seek health information online) spends at least thirty minutes on a search. Once she begins to review online information, she often relies on her own common-sense judgment to determine the credibility of the information. She feels reassured by advice that matches what she already knew about a condition and by statements that are repeated at more than one site. And she is hardly credulous. Fully 73% of health seekers have at some point rejected information from a Web site during a health search for one reason or another. E-patients are most likely to reject sites that are “too commercial” and sites that do not clearly identify the source of the information.

Only about a quarter of e-patients say they systematically check the source and date of the information they find. Another quarter of them say they check the source and date of the information “most of the time,” and about half say they check the source and date of information “only sometimes,” “hardly ever” or “never.”

Nonetheless, health seekers are overwhelmingly pleased with the results of their searches, which often help them make decisions about when to consult doctors, which doctors to consult, what kind of treatments to pursue, and which medicines to take. Fully 82% report getting the information they need all the time or most of the time.

About one third of health seekers who find relevant information online bring it to their doctor for a final quality check.

We find little evidence that bad health information on the Web has actually caused harm to patients. Just 2% of health seekers say they know of instances where online information has caused harm.

“Their approach may not be as rigorous as the medical community would prescribe, but e-patients are finding what they need, when they need it,” says Susannah Fox, Director of Research at the Pew Internet Project.

Since our findings raise so many questions about how consumers search for health information online, we asked the Medical Library Association to provide not only a guide to finding information but also examples of the best health Web sites their librarians have found. Included in this guide are general starting points as well as specific sites for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease (see page 32 of the report).

Other findings

In a special survey of 500 Internet users who go online for health care information, conducted June 19-August 6, 2001, we found:

  • Information about a particular illness, material about weight control, and facts about prescription drugs top the list of interests. We also see big increases in use of the Internet for mental health information and sensitive medical topics.
  • Nearly a fifth of health seekers (18%) say they have gone online to diagnose or treat a medical condition on their own, without consulting their doctor.
  • 48% of health seekers have looked for information about alternative or experimental treatments or medicines.
  • Asked about their most recent episode of seeking online health information, 68% of health seekers say the material they found influenced their medical decisions.
  • Many doctors are open to hearing about the information people find online. Of those who brought online medical information to a physician, 79% reported the doctor was interested and only 13% reported their doctor was not interested.

    “There are millions of Americans now looking online for specific answers to targeted questions,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “They often use the information in making important decisions about interacting with their doctors, getting diagnoses, and treatments. But e-patients are generally cautious about what they find. The ease of using the Internet and the abundance of health information online are not changing their entire approach to health care.”

    About the Pew Internet & American Life Project
    The Pew Internet & American Life Project creates and funds original, academic-quality research that explores the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, the workplace, schools, health care, and civic and political life. The project is an independent, nonpartisan organization that aims to be an authoritative source for timely information on the Internet”s growth and its impact on society. The project is fully funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. For more information: www.pewinternet.org

    About the Medical Library Association
    The Medical Library Association is an educational organization of professionals, providing quality information for improved health. Founded in 1898, MLA represents more than 1,100 institutions and 3,800 individual members in the health sciences information field. For more than a century the Medical Library Association has served society through its members and programs, by providing quality information for better health care, the education of health professionals, the conduct of research, and the public”s understanding of health care issues. For more information: www.mlanet.org