June 11, 2009

The Social Life of Health Information

Trends to Watch

Mobile access and generational shifts will each have an effect on social media and health care.

In conclusion, most adults’ relationship to health and health care remains firmly rooted in the offline world, even as many are exploring the information and communications options available to them. When facing a health question, most people turn to a health professional, friend, or family member; the internet plays a supplemental role. E-patients are likely to dip in to social media activities related to health, but posting comments, reviews, or other health content are not yet mainstream online activities.

There are signs that change is coming:

First, mobile access is on the rise. Wireless connections are associated with deeper engagement in social media and an accelerated pace of information exchange. Indeed, those with mobile access to the internet are more likely than those who have tethered access to contribute their comments and reviews to the online conversation about health and health care. 

Second, adults between the ages of 18 to 49 are more likely than older adults to participate in social technologies related to health. As younger adults face more health care questions and challenges, they may turn to the tools they have sharpened in other contexts of their lives to gather and share health advice.

But in the end, experts remain vital to the health-search and decision-making process. Americans’ longstanding practices of asking a health professional, a trusted friend, or a wise family member persist as patients pursue good health. These are practices which, in the words of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid “will not budge” and therefore require designers of any new health care application “to look not ahead, but to look around” in order to see the way forward.1

Topic by topic: Health information trends since 2002

The Pew Internet Project estimates that 61% of American adults go online for health information. This estimate is based on an evolving series of questions first developed by the Pew Internet Project in 20022 and is in line with other recent reports.3 

Seven health topics have been included in our surveys since 2002, all of which have gained audience share as the percentage of adults who have access to the internet has grown from 57% in 2002 to 74% now.

  • 49% of American adults, or 66% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about a specific disease or medical problem, compared with 36% of adults, or 63% of internet users, in 2002.
  • 41% of American adults, or 55% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure, compared with 27% of adults, or 47% of internet users, in 2002.
  • 38% of American adults, or 52% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about exercise or fitness, compared with 21% of adults, or 36% of internet users in 2002.
  • 33% of American adults, or 45% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about prescription or over-the-counter drugs, compared with 19% of adults, or 34% of internet users, in 2002.
  • 26% of American adults, or 35% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about alternative treatments or medicines, compared with 16% of adults, or 28% of internet users, in 2002.
  • 21% of American adults, or 28% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about depression, anxiety, stress or mental health issues, compared with 12% of adults, or 21% of internet users, in 2002.
  • 15% of American adults, or 20% of internet users, now report that they have looked online for information about experimental treatments or medicines, compared with 10% of adults, or18% of internet users, in 2002

Six topics are new or were modified for this survey, including:

  • 35% of American adults, or 47% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information about doctors or other health professionals.
  • 28% of American adults, or 38% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information about hospitals or other medical facilities.
  • 27% of American adults, or 37% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information related to health insurance, including private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.
  • 24% of American adults, or 33% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information about how to lose weight or how to control their weight.
  • 19% of American adults, or 26% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information about any other health issue, not included in our list.
  • 9% of American adults, or 12% of internet users, report that they have looked online for information about how to stay healthy on a trip overseas (such as immunizations and shots).
  1. numoffset=”23″ John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information. (Harvard Business School Press: 2000).
  2. numoffset=”24″ Susannah Fox and Deborah Fallows, “Internet Health Resources.” (Pew Internet Project: July 16, 2003). See: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/Internet-Health-Resources.aspx
  3. Susannah Fox, “The Engaged E-patient Population.” (Pew Internet Project, August 26, 2008) See: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/The-Engaged-Epatient-Population.aspx