July 16, 2003

Internet Health Resources

Part 7. What We Have Learned about Internet Health

Half of American adults have searched for health information online.

The Pew Internet Project, along with other Internet health researchers, has chronicled the growth of the online health sector over the past three years.  Here are some of our most important conclusions to date.

Half of American adults have searched for health information online.

About half of all American adults have turned to the Internet for health information. Many Americans who do not have Internet access may ask friends and family to search on their behalf, but about one in four Americans is quite cut off from Internet health resources – they have never had access and they do not live with anyone who has access.  Even if they do gain access to the Internet, low health literacy limits many Americans’ ability to understand what is available online.35 And online health information is not just a convenience – a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2003 found that Americans receive about half of recommended medical care.36 An educated consumer stands a better chance of getting better treatment and the Internet can be a significant resource for that health education process.

An educated health care consumer is likely to get better care.

Just looking at current Internet users, women, those with three or more years of online experience, and those under the age of 65 are more likely to look for health information online. Internet users with a college degree and those who enjoy a high-speed connection at home are significantly more likely to have searched for health information. Those who are dealing with a disability or illness – their own or someone else’s – are also more likely to have sought health information online. In this national sample, wealthier Internet users are more likely to be health seekers – Americans living in households with less than $30,000 annual income are not only less likely to be online, they are less likely to have searched for health information. White Internet users are more likely than African American or English-speaking Hispanic Internet users to have searched for health information, but those differences diminish when other demographic factors are held constant.

Popular topics include specific diseases and treatments, plus diet and fitness information.

Eighty percent of Internet users, or about 93 million American adults, have searched for at least one of sixteen health topics. The average Internet user has searched for four of the sixteen topics. The most popular topics include information about a specific disease or medical problem (63%); information about a certain medical treatment or procedure (47%); and information about diet, nutrition, vitamins, or nutritional supplements (44%). The least commonly searched topics include problems with drugs or alcohol (8%) and smoking cessation (6%).

Internet users also value connecting with others who can empathize from their own first-hand experience. Many go online to give as well as receive emotional support, research notes, and practical tips.

A typical health search is often on behalf of someone other than the Internet user sitting at the computer – many Americans are looking for advice about how to help and comfort a friend, child, spouse, or other loved one.

Popular topics include specific diseases and treatments, plus diet and fitness information.

Eighty percent of Internet users, or about 93 million American adults, have searched for at least one of sixteen health topics. The average Internet user has searched for four of the sixteen topics. The most popular topics include information about a specific disease or medical problem (63%); information about a certain medical treatment or procedure (47%); and information about diet, nutrition, vitamins, or nutritional supplements (44%). The least commonly searched topics include problems with drugs or alcohol (8%) and smoking cessation (6%).

Internet users also value connecting with others who can empathize from their own first-hand experience. Many go online to give as well as receive emotional support, research notes, and practical tips.

A typical health search is often on behalf of someone other than the Internet user sitting at the computer – many Americans are looking for advice about how to help and comfort a friend, child, spouse, or other loved one.

Convenience, breadth of information, and anonymity are valued.

In 2001, 82% of health seekers said they find what they are looking for “most of the time” or “always.” Yet our online survey revealed that some e-patients continue to hunt for information that already exists on the Web – they just haven’t found it. About seven in ten health seekers say their most recent search had some impact on decisions related to their own health care or a loved one’s care. And in this most recent survey, conducted in December 2002, 73% of health seekers say the Internet has improved the health and medical information and services they receive.

In 2000, Internet users reported that one of the most important aspects of online health advice is the fact that it is available at any hour of the day or night, from wherever they are able to log on. Ninety-three percent of health seekers said that convenience is important. Eighty-three percent of health seekers said that it is important that Internet users can get more health information online than from any other sources. And 80% of health seekers said it is important that Internet users can get health information anonymously.

In 2000, Internet users also expressed concern about the security of their personal information. Eighty-nine percent of health seekers were concerned that a health Web site might sell or give away information about what they did online. Seventy-five percent of health seekers said that health Web sites should not be allowed to track users’ activities, compared to 18% who said that would be fine. Sixty percent of Internet users thought that putting medical records online is a bad thing, even if they are on a secure, password-protected site, because they would worry about other people seeing their personal information. Thirty-three percent of Internet users thought it would be a good thing to have online access to their medical records.

  1. Baur, 2004.
  2. McGlynn, Elizabeth A., Steven M. Asch, John Adams, Joan Keesey, Jennifer Hicks, Alison DeCristofaro, and Eve A. Kerr. “The Quality of Health Care Delivered to Adults in the United States.” (New England Journal of Medicine: June 26, 2003 – Vol. 348, No. 26.)