October 10, 2004

Prescription Drugs Online

Part 1. Prescription drug information searches

The prescription drug market is enormous.

Forty-five percent of American adults take prescription drugs on a regular basis, 27% occasionally take prescription drugs, and an additional 27% say they never take prescription drugs. In addition, 41% of American adults live with someone who takes prescription drugs on a regular basis. When the two groups of regular users are combined, 64% of American households can be described as “Rx households.”

Rx households – American households with at least one regular prescription drug user.

According to IMS Health, a company that tracks the pharmaceutical market, over 3 billion prescriptions are filled in the U.S. each year, totaling sales of over $200 billion. Chain drug stores garner the most sales of prescription drugs (36.2%), followed by independent drug stores (14.4%), and mail services (13.8%).6

Over the last five years, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has tracked significant increases in the number of Americans seeking health information online.7 Thus, we felt it was important to study the situation with online medicine purchases because of the significant interest that grew around the subject after recent changes in federal policy.

In the spring of 2004, the federal government announced changes to the Medicare system, including the publication of prescription drug prices online. In addition, there has been a recent effort to legalize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, where prices are significantly lower. In August, Illinois joined Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire in launching online directories of recommended Canadian pharmacies.8 The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in July that would allow for prescription drug imports from Canada and other countries.9

But there is strong opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, both of which claim that they cannot guarantee the safety of imported drugs. However, a June 2004 study conducted by the General Accounting Office found that Canadian online pharmacies were just as likely as U.S.-based sites to adhere to safety standards.10

We undertook this study in order to measure Americans’ current interest in online prescription drug research and purchasing.

One in four American adults has searched online for information about prescription drugs.

Twenty-six percent of American adults have researched prescription drugs online – 21% have personally done so and 5% have had it done for them by someone else. Those groups most likely to have personally searched for drug information include: internet users with high-speed connections at work and at home; internet users who have been online for six or more years; Americans with a college degree; and Americans in the Baby Boom generation.

Internet use

Not surprisingly, internet users are more likely than non-users to have personally researched prescription drugs online. Thirty percent of internet users have done so.  Four percent of non-internet users have personally researched prescription drugs online. (Another 4% of internet users and 7% of non-users have had someone else perform such a search on their behalf.)

Connection speed

Broadband users are among the most likely Americans to have searched for prescription drug information online. Forty-one percent of internet users with fast connections at both home and work have personally looked for prescription drug information online. Twenty-nine percent of dial-up users have done so.

Years of experience online

The longer someone has had access to the internet, the more likely he or she is to have searched for information about prescription drugs. Thirty-eight percent of internet users with six or more years of experience have personally looked for prescription drug information online, compared to 28% of those who have been online for four to five years. Just 13% of internet users with one to three years of experience have done this type of research online.  Thirteen percent of newcomers (those with less than one year of online experience) have searched for prescription drug information.

Education

College graduates are more likely to have internet access and, once online, are more likely to have done health searches. Therefore it is not surprising that 32% of college graduates have personally gone online to search for prescription drug information, compared to 23% of American adults who attended college, but did not graduate. Just 15% of high school graduates have personally done this type of search online. 

Age

Younger baby boomers – those born between 1955 and 1964 – are the most likely to have personally searched online for prescription drug information. Some 28% of these 40-49 year-olds have done so.  Twenty-four percent of older baby boomers (50-58 year-olds) have done so. Twenty-three percent of the Gen X generation (28-39 year-olds) have searched for prescription drug information, compared to 17% of Gen Y (18-27 year-olds). Eighteen percent of 59-68 year-olds have personally searched for this type of information, compared to just 8% of internet users age 69 and older.

Household use of prescription drugs

Members of an Rx household are more likely to have searched for drug information online than Americans who are not part of a household so dependent on prescription drugs. Twenty-four percent of members of an Rx household have personally done this type of research online, compared to 15% of Americans who do not live in a household where prescription drugs are taken on a regular basis.

Race

Twenty-four percent of whites have personally done this type of research online, compared to 12% of blacks. Fourteen percent of English-speaking Hispanic or Latino Americans have personally gone online to look for information about prescription drugs.

Health insurance

According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, 15.6% of Americans lack health insurance.11 In our survey of U.S. adults, 13% say they lack health insurance.

Americans with health insurance are more likely to take prescription drugs on a regular basis than those who lack insurance, but we do not know whether it is because insured Americans are more likely to have the need or simply the means to do so. Forty-nine percent of Americans who have health insurance take prescription drugs on a regular basis, 26% do so occasionally, and 24% never do. Twenty percent of Americans who do not have health insurance take prescription drugs on a regular basis, 35% do so occasionally, and 45% never do. Americans with health insurance are also more likely than the uninsured to have visited a doctor or medical clinic in the past year. Eighty-one percent of insured Americans did so, compared to 57% of uninsured Americans.

American adults covered by some form of health insurance, including Medicare or Medicaid, are more likely to have personally searched for prescription drug information online. Twenty-two percent of insured Americans have done so, compared to 14% of Americans who do not have any type of health insurance coverage.

It is important to note that 34% of uninsured American adults are between 18 and 27 years old – the most likely age group to report “excellent” health and the least likely age group to have searched online for prescription drug information. By comparison, 14% of Americans with some form of health insurance are 18-27 years old.

Health status has little to do with a person’s likelihood to have personally researched prescription drug information.

Overall health

Americans in excellent health are only slightly more likely than those in poor health to have personally searched online for prescription drug information – 21% of those in the best of health and 17% of those who describe their health as “fair” or “poor” have done so. However, people in poor health are more likely to have been the subject of a search – 11% have had a prescription drug information search done on their behalf.  By comparison, 5% of those in excellent health have been the subject of such a search.

Disability status

Americans living with a disability are just as likely as other Americans to have personally searched for prescription drug information online – 19% and 21% respectively. Eleven percent of Americans living with a disability have had someone else look on the internet for prescription drug information, compared to 5% of Americans who are not living with a disability. It is important to note that only 38% of Americans living with a disability go online, compared to 69% of other Americans. This may explain why more Americans living with a disability have been the subjects of a search for information – they are more likely to need someone else to go on the internet for them. 

Internet user – defined as those answering “yes” to the following question: “Do you ever go online to access the internet or the World Wide Web or to send and receive email?”

  1. IMS Health industry data. Available at: http://www.imshealth.com/media
  2. “Internet Health Resources: Health searches and email have become more commonplace but there is room for improvement in searches and overall Internet access.” (Pew Internet Project: July 16, 2003) Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/Internet-Health-Resources.aspx
  3. “Ill. Gov. Unveils Online Pharmacy Network” (ABCNews.com: August 17, 2004) Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/wire/US/ap20040817_1531.html
  4. “Drug Import Bill Clears House” (SFGate.com: July 14, 2004) Available at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/news/archive/2004/06/14/national2137EDT0814.DTL
  5. “Internet Pharmacies: Some Pose Safety Risks for Consumers” (United States General Accounting Office: June 17, 2004) Available at: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04820.pdf
  6. “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States.” (Census Bureau: August 26, 2004) Available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p60-226.pdf