October 8, 2007

E-patients With a Disability or Chronic Disease

Part 1. 34 Million Adults Live With a Disability or Chronic Disease

People with chronic conditions are likely to be older and less educated than the general population.

Large surveys of Americans generally show that about one-fifth of the adult population live with disabilities or serious chronic conditions.1 Different definitions of disability and chronic illness are sometimes employed in these surveys, but they are relatively consistent in finding that a notable portion of Americans live with these conditions.

Profile of the Chronic Conditions Population

In a Pew Internet & American Life nationwide phone survey in the fall of 2006, 17%  of American adults answered “yes” to the following question: “Does any disability, handicap, or chronic disease keep you from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities, or not?”2 That translates to about 34 million adults living with chronic conditions. This population is characterized by a comparatively greater portion of people age 50 and older and those who do not use a computer on a regular basis.

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Merck Company Foundation estimates that 80% of older Americans live with one or more chronic conditions.3 As the population ages, the number of Americans with chronic conditions is certain to grow, consuming more health care and health information along the way.

Those with chronic conditions are less likely to use the internet, but there has been major growth in this population in internet adoption in the past four years. Half of people living with disability or chronic disease use the internet, but once online they are nearly as engaged as the general internet population.

About half (51%) of people living with chronic conditions go online, compared with 74% of those who report no disability or chronic disease. This represents a significant increase since 2002, when we found that 35% of adults living with a disability or chronic disease had internet access, compared with 61% of adults with no chronic conditions. However, despite the relatively faster pace of adoption (a 46% increase among the special-needs population, compared with a 21% increase), these figures illustrate the continuing disparities among U.S. adults when it comes to technology adoption.4

“People with chronic conditions” — Adults who have identified themselves as living with a disability or chronic disease that prevents them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities

Internet users living with chronic conditions are somewhat less likely than other internet users to go online on a typical day (58%, compared with 67% of internet users who report no illness or disability).

The vast majority of all internet users (89%) have internet access from home, regardless of their disability or health status. A division between the two groups is apparent in workplace access, however, since most people with chronic conditions are out of the workforce.5 Just 31% of internet users with chronic conditions go online from work, compared with 54% of internet users who report no illness or disability.

Internet users with chronic conditions who have internet access at home are just as likely as other users to have upgraded to broadband service. Sixty-five percent of home internet users with chronic conditions have some kind of high-speed access, compared with 69% of home internet users with no chronic conditions.

Opportunity: Half of American adults with chronic conditions remain offline, but this study shows that once online, they are likely to be enthusiastic internet users.

Once online, internet users with chronic conditions pursue most online activities at the same rate as other users. Equivalent percentages of each group do the following activities:

  • Send or read email (89% of all users)
  • Use a search engine (88% of all users)
  • Visit a government website (66% of all users)
  • Buy or make a travel reservation (63% of all users)
  • Get financial information online (41% of all users)
  • Send instant messages (39% of all users)
  • Look for information about a place to live (39% of all users)
  • Pay to access or download digital content (17% of all users)
  • Use an online social networking site (16% of all users)
  • Sell something online (15% of all users)

Two topics are particularly popular among internet users living with chronic conditions: health and genealogy. Eighty-six percent of internet users with chronic conditions say they look for health information online, compared with 79% of internet users who report no chronic conditions. Thirty-eight percent of internet users with chronic conditions say they research genealogy and family history online, compared with 24% of internet users who report no disability or chronic disease.

People living with disability or chronic disease are very engaged with health care.

Ninety-one percent of people with chronic conditions say they visited a doctor or medical clinic in the previous 12 months, compared with 76% of people with no special needs. Half (52%) of people living with disability or chronic illness say they or someone close to them faced a serious medical emergency or crisis in the last 12 months, compared with 30% of people with no chronic conditions. Nine in ten adults living with a disability or chronic illness say they are covered by some form of health insurance, essentially the same percentage as the rest of the adult population.

“E-patients with chronic conditions” — Internet users who have identified themselves as living with a disability or chronic disease and who search online for information on health and health care

Since health care plays a central role in their lives, it is not surprising that internet users living with disability and chronic disease are more likely than other people to have done some research about it online. But on a typical day, e-patients with chronic conditions and those with no chronic conditions are equally likely to look for health information – 8% and 7% do so respectively.

  1. numoffset=”3″ In the 2004 American Community Survey, 35 million Americans age 16+ were estimated to be living with a “long-lasting sensory, physical, mental, or emotional condition.” (See Table 181 of the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007.)
  2. In a survey conducted in 2002, 15% of adults answered yes to that question. See: “Internet Health Resources” (Pew Internet Project: July 16, 2003). Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/95/report_display.asp
  3. “The State of Aging and Health in America 2007” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Merck Company Foundation). Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/aging/
  4. numoffset=”6″ “Disability and the Digital Divide: Comparing Surveys with Disability Data” (University of Montana Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities: June 2006). Available at: http://rtc.ruralinstitute.umt.edu/TelCom/Divide.htm
  5. 23% of adults living with disability or chronic disease are employed full- or part-time, compared with 68% of adults who report no disability or disease.