October 29, 2006

Most internet users start at a search engine when looking for health information online.

Washington, DC – Most internet users start at a general search engine when researching health and medical advice online. Three-quarters of internet users who look online for such advice do not consistently check the source and date of the information they find. Just 15% of health seekers say they “always” check the source and date of the health information they find online, while another 10% say they do so “most of the time.” Fully three-quarters of health seekers say they check the source and date “only sometimes,” “hardly ever,” or “never,” which translates to about 85 million Americans gathering health advice online without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information they find. These 2006 findings compare with the one-quarter of health seekers who said they always checked the source and date, one-quarter who did so most of the time, and the 50% of health seekers who said they rarely or never checked these two quality indicators in our survey in 2001. One possible reason for this diminished diligence in checking sources and dates might lie with health websites themselves: A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finds that less than 2% of popular health sites display the source and date of the information on their pages. These are some of the key findings in a new report issued by the Pew Internet Project titled “Online Health Search 2006”:

  • Eighty percent of American internet users, or some 113 million adults, have searched for information on at least one of seventeen health topics. As in our previous studies, certain groups of internet users are the most likely to have sought health information online: women, internet users younger than 65, college graduates, those with more online experience, and those with broadband access at home.
  • 66% of health seekers began their last online health inquiry at a search engine; 27% began at a health-related website.
  • 48% of health seekers say their quest for information was undertaken on behalf of someone else, not themselves. An additional 8% of health seekers say the search was on behalf of someone else and to answer their own health questions. Thirty-six percent of health seekers say their last search was in relation to their own health or medical situation.
  • 53% of health seekers report that most recent health information session had some kind of impact on how they take care of themselves or care for someone else.
  • 74% of health seekers say they felt reassured that they could make appropriate health care decisions after their last search. A majority of health seekers said they felt confident to raise new questions with their doctor, relieved or comforted by the information they found online, or eager to share their new knowledge with others.
  • 25% of health seekers say they felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they found online during their last search. Similarly small groups of health seekers say they felt frustrated by the lack of information, confused by the information, or frightened by the serious or graphic nature of what they found online during their last health-related query.

    The report, written by Associate Director Susannah Fox, is based on a telephone survey of 2,928 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted August 1-31, 2006.

    “Search engines are the first stop for two-thirds of internet users with a health question and it turns out the search is often on behalf of someone else,” said Fox. “These days, internet users bring the gift of information to a bedside, along with flowers and best wishes.”

    Seven percent of internet users, or about 10 million American adults, searched for information on at least one health topic on a typical day in August 2006. This places health searches at about the same level of popularity on a typical day as paying bills online, reading blogs, or using the internet to look up a phone number or address.

    One new item joined the list of health topics this year: 15% of internet users, or about 21 million adults, have looked online for information about dental health.

    About the Pew Internet & American Life Project: The Pew Internet Project produces reports that explore the social impact of the internet. Support for the non-profit Pew Internet Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center. The Project’s website: http://www.pewinternet.org