November 26, 2013

The Diagnosis Difference

45% of U.S. adults live with chronic disease

Living with a chronic disease has an independent effect on people’s technology adoption and health behavior

7 in 10 track weight, diet, exercise routine, or symptoms

WASHINGTON (November 26, 2013)—Forty-five percent of U.S. adults report that they live with one or more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, but also less common conditions like lupus and cancer. They are more likely than other adults to be older, to have faced a medical emergency in the past year, and, as other studies have shown, to contribute to the explosion of health care costs in the U.S.

A new national survey by the Pew Research Center, supported by the California HealthCare Foundation, explores how adults with chronic conditions gather, share, and create health information, both online and offline.

The Pew Research Center’s analysis indicates a “diagnosis difference” that is tied to several aspects of health care and technology use. For example, holding other variables constant (including age, income, education, ethnicity, and overall health status), the fact that someone has a chronic condition is independently associated with being offline.

The diagnosis difference cuts another way, too.  This study provides evidence that many people with serious health concerns take their health decisions seriously—and are seriously social about gathering and sharing information, both online and offline.

Internet users living with one or more conditions are more likely than other online adults to:

  • Gather information online about medical problems, treatments, and drugs.
  • Consult online reviews about drugs and other treatments.
  • Read or watch something online about someone else’s personal health experience.

“Our research makes it clear that when the chips are down, people are most likely to get advice from a clinician, but online resources are a significant supplement,” says Susannah Fox, lead author of the study and an associate director at the Pew Research Center. “Just as significantly, once people begin learning from others online about how to cope with their illnesses, they join the conversation and also share what they know.”

The diagnosis difference is also tied to the phenomenon of people tracking symptoms and other health indicators, which clinical research shows is a low-cost, effective health intervention. This is the first national survey measuring the extent of tracking among the people most likely to benefit – those living with chronic health conditions.

Seven in ten U.S. adults living with one chronic condition and fully 80% of people living with two or more conditions track weight, diet, exercise routine, other health indicators like blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep patterns, or headaches, for themselves or for someone else. By comparison, 61% of adults living with no conditions track some aspect of health. When controlling for age, income, education, ethnicity, and overall health status, living with chronic conditions increases the probability that someone will track a health indicator.

Pencil and paper is the most popular method of tracking among people living with chronic conditions (43%), followed by just keeping track in their heads (41%). Technology plays a minor role – 14% of trackers living with chronic conditions use a medical device like a glucometer and a handful use an app, a spreadsheet, or website to keep track of symptoms and other health indicators.

Seventy-two percent of trackers living with one or more conditions say tracking has had an impact on their health or the health of someone they care for, compared with 55% of trackers who report no conditions.

About the study

The results reported here 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. In this survey there are 1,498 respondents who are living with one or more chronic health conditions. Margin of error for results based on that group is ±3 percentage points.

The Pew Research Center is a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Center is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Center 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.

Media contact

Susannah Fox: sfox@pewinternet.org or 202-419-4511