October 29, 2006

Online Health Search 2006

Eight in ten internet users go online for health information.

Eighty percent of American internet users, or some 113 million adults, have searched for information on at least one of seventeen health topics. The percentage of internet users who search for health information has been stable over the past four years, even as the internet population has grown and broadband connections at home have become the norm. As in 2002 and 2004, certain groups of internet users in 2006 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.

Health topics searched online

Eight million American adults look online for health information on a typical day.

Seven percent of health seekers, or about 8 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.

The typical health information session starts at a search engine, includes multiple sites, and is undertaken on behalf of someone other than the person doing the search.

In order to capture a portrait of a typical health search, we asked respondents to think about the last time they went online for health or medical information. We found that:

  • 66% of health seekers began their last online health inquiry at a search engine; 27% began at a health-related website.
  • 72% of health seekers visited two or more sites during their last health information session.
  • 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: 42% described it as a minor impact and 11% described it as a major impact.
  • The impact was most deeply felt by internet users who had received a serious diagnosis or experienced a health crisis in the past year, either their own or that of someone close to them. Fourteen percent of these hard-hit health seekers say their last search had a major impact, compared with 7% of health seekers who had not received a diagnosis or dealt with a health crisis in the past year.

Among the internet users who say their last search had any kind of impact:

  • 58% say the information they found in their last search affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.
  • 55% say the information changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help take care of.
  • 54% say the information led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • 44% say the information changed the way they think about diet, exercise, or stress management.
  • 39% say the information changed the way they cope with a chronic condition or manage pain.
  • 35% say the information affected a decision about whether to see a doctor.

Most health seekers are pleased about what they find online, but some are frustrated or confused.

We gave respondents eight different ways – four positive and four negative – to describe how they felt during their last search for health information online. People were much more inclined to identify with the positive descriptions.

  • 74% of health seekers say they felt reassured that they could make appropriate health care decisions.
  • 56% say they felt confident to raise new questions or concerns about a health issue with their doctor.
  • 56% say they felt relieved or comforted by the information they found online.
  • 51% say they felt eager to share their new health or medical knowledge with others.

On the other hand:

  • 25% say they felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they found online.
  • 22% say they felt frustrated by a lack of information or an inability to find what they were looking for online.
  • 18% say they felt confused by the information they found online.
  • 10% say they felt frightened by the serious or graphic nature of the information they found online.

Three-quarters of health seekers do not consistently check the source and date of the health information they find online.

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 just 4% of “frequently visited” health websites disclosed the source of the information on their pages and 2% disclosed how the content is updated.1

Successful health information searches may bolster health seekers’ confidence.

Few health seekers report bad outcomes and many report positive effects of their online health queries. Three percent of health seekers, or about 3 million adults, say they or someone they know has been seriously harmed by following the advice or information they found online. Fully 31% of health seekers, or about 35 million adults, say they or someone they know has been significantly helped by following medical advice or health information found on the internet.

Online Health Search 2006: Findings at a glance

  1. CDC Wonder Data 2010. Healthy People 2010 Health Communication Focus Area 11, Objective 11-4.