The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project conducts ongoing surveys about the social impact of the internet, including its effect on health and health care. Starting in 2000 with the findings of “The Online Health Care Revolution” and continuing over the last 10 years, we measured the increasing use of health-related internet resources in the United States.
The landscape has changed significantly since the spring of 2000, when 46% of American adults had access to the internet, 5% of U.S. households had broadband connections, and 25% of American adults looked online for health information.
Now 74% of American adults go online, 57% of American households are connected via broadband and 61% of adults look online for health information. Further, many American adults now have an “always present” connection via wireless devices. Mobile access is changing the behavior of internet users and, in particular, changing the behavior of health care consumers. The mobile internet draws people into conversations about health as much as online tools enable research.
The Pew Internet Project has mapped this landscape by asking American adults about their assets, actions, and attitudes related to internet and communications technology. It turns out that 39% of adults are Motivated by Mobility. If they have a desktop computer, they use wireless technology not as a replacement, but as a supplement to that “wireline” connection. Mobile access creates a continual information exchange that feeds on itself and reinforces collaborative behavior. By contrast, 61% of adults are the Stationary Media Majority. Many are on the “have” side of the so-called digital divide. They may have broadband and they may have a cell phone, but they are rooted in old media. They are just not that into the hive mind enabled by always-connected technologies such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like.
The Project’s December 2008 survey, conducted in partnership with the California HealthCare Foundation, brings together two other streams of our research: Americans’ use of social media and their pursuit of health information.
The survey confirms the well-established finding that 8 in 10 internet users, or 61% of U.S. adults, have looked online for health information.
But more importantly, this survey finds that Americans’ pursuit of health takes place within a widening network of both online and offline sources. The internet supplements, but does not replace, traditional sources of health information. The vast majority of people with a health question or concern say they consult a health professional. The second most popular choice is to ask friends and family. The internet and books, or other printed reference materials, are essentially tied at third place among U.S. adults who need information or assistance dealing with health or medical issues.
Looking closer at how people use the internet for health care, it is clear that some are going online to connect, in fact, with what we think of as traditional sources: health professionals, friends, and families. People tap into their social networks, both online and offline. Whereas someone may have in the past called a health professional, their Mom, or a good friend, they now are also reading blogs, listening to podcasts, updating their social network profile, and posting comments. And many people, once they find health information online, talk with someone about it offline.
This Pew Internet/California HealthCare survey finds that technology is not an end, but a means to accelerate the pace of discovery, widen social networks, and sharpen the questions someone might ask when they do get to talk to a health professional. Technology can help to enable the human connection in health care and the internet is turning up the information network’s volume.