May 17, 2005

Health Information Online

Part 2. Health Topics

Introduction

The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s previous research has suggested that online health seekers were often motivated to search out information that relates to actions they might need to take for specific medical issues in their lives.1 For instance, they (or people they love) might have experienced health symptoms that worry them and internet users search for information about whether they would be wise to visit a doctor. Or, they might have just received a diagnosis and wanted to learn more about their medical condition. Or a medical treatment or new medicine might have been prescribed and they wanted to learn more about those things.

In many cases, online health seekers were action-oriented and highly purposeful because there was a pressing medical issue for them to address.

In this survey we still see those concerns reflected in many respondents’ answers. At the same time, there are also notable changes that relate to specific kinds of health searches. Online investigations for information about diet, fitness, exercise and over-the-counter drugs have grown. This suggests that online health seekers are increasingly interested in wellness information and material that could be unconnected to worrisome symptoms, a doctor’s diagnosis, or another kind of health crisis.   

Two other notable categories of growth were in searches related to health insurance and material about specific doctors and hospitals. This also suggests that health seekers are doing more “health homework” online before they make big decisions about health care. 

What follows is an analysis of the topics we probed in our survey. The following table shows some of the key demographic realities for each of these online health searches.

Health topics

Health topics continued

Specific disease

Two-thirds (66%) of internet users have searched for information about a specific disease or medical problem, a slight but not statistically significant increase from 63% who did so in 2002. As in 2002, internet users who are women, between 30-64 years old, college educated, and have six or more years of online experience are more likely to have searched online for this type of information.

Medical procedures and treatments

Just over half (51%) of internet users have searched online for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure, a slight but not statistically significant increase from 47% who did so in 2002. As in 2002, internet users who are women, between 30-64 years old, college educated, have six or more years of online experience, and have broadband access at home are more likely to have searched online for this type of information. One group reported a statistically significant increase of interest in medical treatment information – 58% of internet users between 30-49 years old said they have done this type of search, compared to 49% who did so in 2002.

Certain treatments

Diet and nutrition

A significantly higher percentage of internet users went online to research diet and nutrition over the last two years.  In 2004, 51% of internet users report having done that type of search, compared to 44% of internet users in 2002.

As in 2002, internet users who are women, younger than 65 years old, college educated, have six or more years of online experience, and have broadband access at home are more likely to have searched for this type of information. However, women and those between 30-64 years old reported increases that are statistically significant.

Supplements

In 2004, 59% of online women said they have searched for diet information, a significant increase from 48% who did so in 2002. In 2004, 43% of men said they had done a diet-related search, a negligible increase from 39% in 2002.

Internet users between 18 and 29 years old reported essentially the same interest in 2004 as they did in 2002 – 47% said they had looked online for diet and nutrition information in our most recent survey. By contrast, 55% of internet users 30-49 years old and 54% of internet users 50-64 years old said they had done this type of information search, a significant increase for each group. The 2004 sample did not include enough internet users age 65 and older to report the precise figure, but “wired seniors” are significantly less likely than younger users to have searched for diet and nutrition information online.

Supplements by age

Fitness

A significantly higher percentage of internet users are going online to find information about exercise and fitness than did so two years ago. Forty-two percent of internet users report having done that type of search, compared to 36% of internet users in 2002. Exercise and fitness information is equally popular with men and women, as it was in 2002. As in 2002, internet users younger than 65 are more likely to have done this type of search, but one age group showed significantly more interest as of 2004: those 50-64 years old.

Exercise or fitness

In 2004, 40% of internet users between 50 and 64 years old reported that they have looked online for information about exercise or fitness, compared to 28% of internet users in that age group in 2002. The changes reported by the other age groups are not statistically significant. In 2004, 49% of internet users 18-29 years old and 43% of internet users 30-49 years old reported this type of search. Wired seniors (age 65+) are significantly less likely than younger users to have searched for exercise tips online.

Prescription and over-the-counter drugs

In 2004, 40% of internet users reported going online to find information about prescription or over-the-counter drugs, compared to 34% of internet users in 2002. This is a statistically significant increase that was reported by all kinds of internet users – no one demographic group stood out as exceptional.

Internet users between 50 and 64 years old continue to lead other age groups when it comes to this type of search – 46% have done this, compared to 32% of 18-29 year-old internet users, for example. Similarly, internet users with six or more years of online experience lead the way – 46% of the most veteran users reported in 2004 that they have searched for drug information, compared to 22% of internet users with two or three years of online experience.

Health insurance

Interest in health insurance information on the internet increased significantly between 2002 and 2004. Thirty-one percent of internet users said they have searched for health insurance information, compared to 25% of internet users in 2002 who reported doing that type of search.

Insurance

Women and men are now equal when it comes to this type of search – 31% of online women and 30% of online men say they have looked online for health insurance information. In 2002, women were significantly more likely to have done this activity (29% vs. 22%). As in 2002, internet users with a college degree, those who are online parents, and internet users with six or more years of online experience are more likely than their counterparts to report interest in health insurance information online. Health insurance information continues to draw users in those demographic categories, but another group joined in to drive up the total percentage compared to two years ago: internet users between 30 and 49 years old. Fully 38% of internet users in their 30s and 40s have done this type of search, up from 27% in 2002. Forty percent of internet users with college degrees have looked for health insurance information, up from 31% in 2002. Thirty-eight percent of internet users with children younger than 18 living at home have done so, up from 29% in 2002. Forty percent of the most veteran internet users have done this type of search, up from 29% in 2002.

Insurace by family type

Alternative medicine

Thirty percent of internet users have looked online for information about alternative treatments or medicines. That is statistically the same percentage as in 2002, when 28% of internet users reported that kind of search. Online men are now just as likely as online women to have done this type of research, whereas in 2002, women reported higher interest in alternative treatment information online. As in 2002, internet users between 30 and 64 years old are the most likely to have done such a search. Thirty-nine percent of users age 50-64 and 33% of users age 30-49 years old have searched for alternative medicines, compared to 21% of 18-29 year-old internet users and a similarly low percentage of internet users age 65 and older.

Particular doctor or hospital

Next to diet and nutrition information, looking for information about a particular doctor or hospital saw the greatest increase in popularity as a health topic between 2002 and 2004. Twenty-eight percent of internet users say they have done this type of search, up from 21% who did so in 2002.

Particular doctor or hospital

Internet users with a college degree reported the most significant jump – 42% of these highly-educated users now say they have looked for information about a particular doctor or hospital, compared to 27% of the same group in 2002.  By comparison, 15% of internet users with a high school diploma report having done this type of search. Similarly, the most veteran users, with six or more years of online experience, reported a significant jump in this type of search and set themselves apart from their less-experienced counterparts. Thirty-seven percent of internet users who have been online for six or more years have searched for information about a doctor or hospital, up from 26% in 2002. By comparison, just 10% of internet users with two or three years of online experience have done this type of search. Internet users with a fast, broadband connection at home also reported a significant increase in this type of search. Forty-one percent of home broadband users have looked online for information about a particular doctor or hospital, up from 31% of all broadband users in 2002. By comparison, 19% of dial-up users reported this type of search in our 2004 survey. All other demographic groups were essentially equal when it comes to looking information about a certain doctor or hospital.

Particular doctor or hospital by connection type

Mental health

Twenty-three percent of internet users have looked online for information about depression, anxiety, stress, or mental health issues, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 21% of internet users reported doing this type of search. As in 2002, online women are more likely than online men to search for mental health information on the internet (26% vs. 19%).

Experimental treatments

Twenty-three percent of internet users have looked online for information about experimental treatments or medicines – a significant increase from 2002, when 18% of internet users reported looking for that type of material online.

Experimental treatments by age

Online women and online men report equal interest in this type of information, as they did in 2002. Three types of internet users showed statistically significant increases in searching for experimental treatments: those age 50-64 years old; those with college degrees; and those with six or more years of online experience. Twenty-eight percent of 50-64 year-olds with internet access said they have done this type of search, compared to 16% of the same age group in 2002. Thirty percent of internet users with a college degree have done so, compared to 20% of the same category in 2002. Twenty-eight percent of the most veteran internet users report doing this type of search, compared to 20% of that group in 2002.

Environmental health hazards

Eighteen percent of internet users have looked online for information about environmental health hazards, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 17% of internet users said they had researched this topic online. Internet users with broadband access at home are more likely to have searched for this information than those with dial-up access at home (23% vs. 14%). Internet users with six or more years of experience online are more likely than those with two to three years of experience online (22% vs. 7%).

Immunizations

Sixteen percent of internet users have looked online for information about immunizations or vaccinations, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 13% of internet users said they had researched this topic online. As in 2002, parents are more likely to have researched this topic than internet users who do not have children living at home (22% vs. 12%). Internet users with broadband access at home are more likely to have searched for this information than those with dial-up access at home (20% vs. 13%). Internet users with six or more years of experience online are more likely than those with two to three years of experience online (21% vs. 8%).

Sexual health

Eleven percent of internet users have looked online for information about sexual health, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 10% of internet users said they had researched this topic online. As in 2002, internet users between 18 and 29 years old are the most likely to have done this type of search (15% vs. 7% of 50-64 year-olds, for example).

Medicare and Medicaid

Eleven percent of internet users have looked online for information about Medicare and Medicaid, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 9% of internet users said they had researched this topic online. As in 2002, internet users age 65 and older are the most likely to have searched for information on these health coverage plans (21% vs. 5% of 18-29 year-olds, for example). In addition, 15% of internet users with six or more years of online experience have done this type of search, compared to 5% of internet users with two or three years of experience.

Problems with drugs or alcohol

Eight percent of internet users have looked online for information about problems with drugs or alcohol, exactly the same percentage as in 2002. As in 2002, internet users between 18 and 29 years old are more likely than older internet users to do this type of online research (13% vs. 7% of 30-49 year-old internet users, for example).

Smoking cessation

Seven percent of internet users have looked online for information about smoking cessation, which is statistically the same as in 2002 when 6% of internet users said they had researched this topic online. Online women are twice as likely as online men to report doing this type of search (10% vs. 5%), which is new since 2002 when men and women reported equal interest in smoking cessation information online.

  1. Fox, Susannah and Deborah Fallows, “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 & American Life Project: July 16, 2003. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/Internet-Health-Resources.aspx)