March 24, 2010

Chronic Disease and the Internet

Adults living with chronic disease are disproportionately offline in an online world.

Recent survey data from the Pew Internet Project and the California HealthCare Foundation show that adults living with chronic disease are significantly less likely than healthy adults to have access to the internet:

  • 81% of adults reporting no chronic diseases go online.
  • 62% of adults living with one or more chronic disease go online.

People managing multiple diseases are less likely to have internet access:

  • 68% of adults reporting one chronic disease go online.
  • 52% of adults living with two or more chronic diseases go online.

These findings are in line with overall trends in public health and technology adoption. Statistically speaking, chronic disease is associated with being older, African American, less educated, and living in a lower-income household. By contrast, internet use is statistically associated with being younger, white, college-educated, and living in a higher-income household. Thus, it is not surprising that the chronically ill report lower rates of internet access than other adults.  However, when all of these demographic factors are controlled, living with a chronic disease in and of itself has an independent, negative effect on someone’s likelihood to have internet access.

The internet access gap creates an online health information gap.

Looking at the population as a whole, 51% of American adults living with chronic disease have looked online for any of the health topics included in the survey, such as information about a specific disease, a certain medical procedure, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, or health insurance.

By comparison, 66% of adults who report no chronic conditions use the internet to gather health information.

Lack of internet access, not lack of interest in the topic, is the primary reason for the gaps. In fact, when demographic factors are controlled, internet users living with chronic disease are slightly more likely than other internet users to access health information online.

Health professionals dominate the information mix.

More than any other group, people living with chronic disease remain strongly connected to offline sources of medical assistance and advice:

  • 93% of adults living with chronic disease ask a health professional for information or assistance in dealing with health or medical issues.
  • 60% ask a friend or family member.
  • 56% use books or other printed reference material.
  • 44% use the internet.
  • 38% contact their insurance provider.
  • 6% use another source not mentioned in the list.

By comparison, adults who report no chronic conditions are significantly more likely to turn to the internet as a source of health information and less likely to contact their insurance provider.

However, the social life of chronic disease information is robust.

Interestingly, there are two activities which stand out among people living with chronic disease: blogging and online health discussions. When other demographic factors are held constant, having a chronic disease significantly increases an internet user’s likelihood to say they work on a blog or contribute to an online discussion, a listserv, or other online group forum that helps people with personal issues or health problems.

Uptake for these activities is low overall, but those who have participated often praise the information they find. For example, one person wrote, “[An] online support group helped me learn about the disease and provided comfort in knowing that my symptoms were not ‘just in my head,’ and helped me take steps to adjust to living with a chronic condition.” Another shared, “I live in a small town and it is helpful to be able to use the internet to find others that have the same condition as I do.”

Living with chronic disease is also associated, once someone is online, with a greater likelihood to access user-generated health content such as blog posts, hospital reviews, doctor reviews, and podcasts. These resources allow an internet user to dive deeply into a health topic, using the internet as a communications tool, not simply an information vending machine.

The impact of online health information may be muted among people living with chronic disease.

Thirty-six percent of adults living with chronic disease say they or someone they know has been helped by following medical advice or health information found on the internet, which is significantly lower than the 45% of adults with no chronic disease.

Very few adults, regardless of health status, say they or someone they know has been harmed by following medical advice or health information found on the internet. Two percent of adults living with chronic disease report such harm, compared with 3% of adults with no chronic disease.

However, when asked if the health information found in their last online session had an impact on their own health care or the way they care for someone else, those who are living with chronic disease are significantly more likely than other internet users to say yes, their most recent inquiry made a difference.

The internet is like a secret weapon – if someone has access to it.

The deck is stacked against people living with chronic disease. They are disproportionately offline. They often have complicated health issues, not easily solved by the addition of even the best, most reliable, medical advice.

And yet, those who are online have a trump card. They have each other. This survey finds that having a chronic disease increases the probability that an internet user will share what they know and learn from their peers. They unearth nuggets of information. They blog. They participate in online discussions. And they just keep going.