July 16, 2003

Americans Search Online for Mental Health, Insurance, and Drug Information

WASHINGTON (July 16, 2003) – In the first comprehensive national survey on the scope of health topics that Americans are searching online, the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that one in five Internet users has looked for mental health information, one in four has looked for health insurance information, and one in three has looked for drug information online. In all, 80% of Internet users have looked for at least one of 16 health topics.

These findings have particular relevance as the federal government initiates plans to post hospital quality information online, as announced last week by Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services.

“About 20 million Americans have already looked for information about a particular doctor or hospital and will no doubt welcome more detailed information about the quality of care at some facilities,” said Susannah Fox, director of research at the Pew Internet Project. “But about a quarter of Americans, including millions of seniors, is quite cut off from the Internet and will not have the opportunity to review such quality measures.”

Health Topics Searched Online

In all, 80% of American Internet users have searched for information on at least one major health topic online. Many have searched for several kinds of information.

Health Topic – Internet Users Who Have Searched for Info on It (%)

  • Specific disease or medical problem – 63%
  • Certain medical treatment or procedure – 47%
  • Diet, nutrition, vitamins, or nutritional supplements – 44%
  • Exercise or fitness – 36%
  • Prescription or over-the-counter drugs – 34%
  • Alternative treatments or medicines – 28%
  • Health insurance – 25%
  • Depression, anxiety, stress, or mental health issues – 21%
  • A particular doctor or hospital – 21%
  • Experimental treatments or medicines – 18%
  • Environmental health hazards – 17%
  • Immunizations or vaccinations – 13%
  • Sexual health information – 10%
  • Medicare or Medicaid – 9%
  • Problems with drugs or alcohol – 8%
  • How to quit smoking – 6%

    Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project December 2002 Survey. N=1,220. Margin of error is ±3%.

    Women are more likely than men to have looked online for information on most health topics. Better-educated Internet users are also more likely to have searched for health information. Interestingly, health status and Internet experience also play significant roles. Internet users living with a chronic disease are more likely to have used Internet health resources, as are Internet users who care for a sick loved one at home. Internet users who have been online for three or more years and those with broadband connections are more likely to have searched for health information online.

    “Health searches are not an everyday activity for most Americans,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “But we have noticed that once an Internet user has been successful in an online endeavor, she will return to it the next time she has a similar problem or question, no matter how much time has lapsed between the searches.”

    In addition to information searches, Internet users are increasingly going to disease- or situation-specific support sites and using email to discuss health issues with family, friends, and (to a lesser degree) doctors. The usefulness and popularity of online support translates into enthusiasm and even passion from Internet users for electronic communications. In comments, they describe the value from email and support groups in both emotional and practical terms. In an online survey, one man wrote, “I am an active participant and information flows both directions. I spend at least an hour a day helping others with their medical concerns.”

    This study was conducted via random digit dial telephone polling of 2,038 American adults, some 1,220 of whom are Internet users, in December 2002, and also draws on comments gathered from 1,971 Internet users who participated in an online survey. The results of the phone survey have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization fully funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to examine how Internet use affects families, communities, health care, education, civic/political life, and the work place.