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Internet Is a Valued Source for Health Seekers

July 16, 2003

Americans’ use of the Internet to gather health information occurs sporadically, with Web surfers often seeking information to help family and friends rather than themselves, according to a report released today by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

“Health searches are not an everyday activity for most Americans,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “But we have noticed that once an Internet user has been successful in an online endeavor, she will return to it the next time she has a similar problem or question, no matter how much time has lapsed between the searches.”

Eighty percent of Web users — about 93 million people — have accessed the Internet to research health topics. They tend to be well-educated and have broadband rather than dial-up Internet access, and women are more likely than men to do health searches, the report concludes.

These users place great faith in the information they find, saying that they are almost as likely to go online the next time they need medical information as they are to contact a medical professional. Even the 45 percent of non-Internet users surveyed say they think the Internet is a good place to get reliable health information.

The most common health searches were for information on specific diseases or medical problems, as well as medical treatments and diet and exercise information. Less than 15 percent of users looked for information on sexual health, problems with drugs or alcohol or ways to quit smoking.

Some of the biggest users of Internet health sites are patients with chronic or rare diseases and their caregivers, many of whom take full advantage of online newsgroups, e-mail list serves and other ways to connect to a virtual community that provides both practical information and emotional support.

These groups often include people who offer advice to newcomers as well.

“I am an active participant and information flows both directions. I spend at least an hour a day helping others with their medical concerns,” according to one survey respondent.

These “power users,” says Pew Director of Research Susannah Fox, are eager to increase their electronic dialogue with their physicians.

“They are very enthusiastic about using e-mail to keep in touch with their doctors, and others told how they value being able to connect directly with a doctor instead of routing messages through a receptionist, who might not jot down the details correctly or ask the right follow-up questions,” Fox says.

Only 7 percent of the e-mail users in the survey say that they have exchanged health-related e-mail with doctors or other health professionals, but 93 percent of e-mail users say that it is a useful way to communicate their medical concerns.

Internet users would also like to see more contacts for local health resources online, as well as more information on doctors’ backgrounds, according to the report.

Copyright © 2003, Newswise