January 15, 2013

Health Online 2013

35% of U.S. adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition

The internet is a de facto second opinion – and even first opinion – for many people

WASHINGTON (January 15, 2013) – One in three U.S. adults say that at one time or another they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have. And yet medical professionals are still most people’s top choice when they are dealing with a serious health concern, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Among those who have used online information to try to diagnose themselves or someone else, 53% say they later saw a medical professional to talk about their concerns. Clinicians were more likely than not to confirm the online diagnosis.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • 59% of U.S. adults say they looked online for health information within the past year.
  • Of those, 8 in 10 say they started their last health inquiry at a general search engine. Smaller groups started at a dedicated health website or social networking site.
  • 1 in 4 health information seekers say they have encountered a pay wall. Most tried to find the same information somewhere else, but some just gave up. Only 2% paid the fee.

“Online health information is available day or night, at no cost, and the internet has become a de facto second opinion for many people,” says Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Project and lead author of the report. “The open search box invites people to begin their journey toward better health, but this study shows that the internet is just one piece of the puzzle. Clinicians are still central.”

When asked about the last time they had a serious health issue:

  • 70% of U.S. adults got information, care, or support from a doctor or other health care professional.
  • 60% got information or support from friends and family.
  • 24% got information or support from others who have the same health condition.
  • Most of these interactions occurred offline.

The social life of health information is a small, but steady presence in American life. In addition to the care and communication provided by family, friends, and fellow patients, 26% of internet users have read or watched someone else’s experience about health or medical issues in the last 12 months.

There has been little growth in the use of health care-related review sites. One in five internet users have consulted online reviews and rankings of health care service providers and treatments, compared with, for example, the 8 in 10 internet users who say they have researched a general consumer product or service online. And only 3-4% of internet users have posted a health care-related review.

About this study

The results reported in “Health Online 2013” come from a nationwide survey of 3,014 adults living in the United States. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (1,808) and cell phone (1,206, including 624 without a landline phone). The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were done in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from August 7 to September 6, 2012. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ±2.4 percentage points.

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 for the Project is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Support for this study was provided by the California HealthCare Foundation, an independent philanthropy committed to improving the way health care is delivered and financed in California.