February 1, 2011

Health Topics

WASHINGTON – Health information is one of the most important subjects that internet users research online and new topics are continually added to the line-up, such as when food safety or drug recalls are in the news.

In a national telephone survey conducted August 9-September 13, 2010, the Pew Internet Project and California HealthCare Foundation find that 80% of internet users look online for health information, making it the third most popular online pursuit among all those tracked by the Pew Internet Project, following email and using a search engine. 

However, the survey finds that not only are some demographic groups more likely than others to have internet access, but these same groups are generally more likely to seek health information once online. The most likely groups to look online for health information include: caregivers, women, whites, younger adults, and adults with at least some college education. The groups least likely to look online for health information include: African Americans, Latinos, people living with disability, older adults, and adults with a high school education or less.

“The internet has become a go-to resource for most Americans, but some groups are still on the other side of the health information divide,” says Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project and author of the study. “Many people, particularly the most vulnerable populations, are not likely to see the most up-to-date information on drug recalls, food safety, and medical treatments.”

The survey measured internet users’ interest in the following topics:

  • 66% of internet users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem. The top five conditions searched for on WebMD, for example, are shingles, gallbladder, gout, hemorrhoids, and lupus.
  • 56% of internet users look online for information about a certain medical treatment or procedure. The top five treatments searched for on WebMD, for example, are pain relievers, anti-depressants, high blood pressure medication, corticosteroids, and hysterectomy.
  • 44% of internet users look online for information about doctors or other health professionals.
  • 36% of internet users look online for information about hospitals or other medical facilities.
  • 33% of internet users look online for information related to health insurance, including private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.
  • 29% of internet users look online for information about food safety or recalls.
  • 24% of internet users look online for information about drug safety or recalls.
  • 22% of internet users look online for information about environmental health hazards.
  • 19% of internet users look online for information about pregnancy and childbirth.
  • 17% of internet users look online for information about memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.
  • 16% of internet users look online for information about medical test results.
  • 14% of internet users look online for information about how to manage chronic pain.
  • 12% of internet users look online for information about long-term care for an elderly or disabled person.
  • 7% of internet users look online for information about end-of-life decisions.

The rise of wireless internet access could shift the patterns of who is looking for health information online, however. Young people, Latinos, and African Americans are increasingly likely to use mobile devices to gather information, including health advice.

This report is the result of collaboration between the Pew Internet Project and the California HealthCare Foundation.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The California HealthCare Foundation is an independent philanthropy committed to improving the way health care is delivered and financed in California.