5 Questions You Didn't Think to Ask About Pew Internet's Health Online 2013 Study

Earlier this week, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released Health Online 2013, the latest in its annual series of reports focusing on some of the ways people find and consume health content online and via mobile. 

As is usually the case for Pew’s studies, coverage of this research has been widespread. A key finding from this study is that 35% of U.S. adults have used the Web to diagnose a medical condition. This statistic has prompted much discussion about whether Dr. Google provides accurate health and medical information and if Web mediated self-diagnosis is harmful or helpful. 

Unfortunately, most people will simply focus on the highlights of Pew’s report and move on with their day. However, glossing over this study (and other research Pew has conducted) would be a mistake. If you are involved with developing and deploying digital health technologies (in marketing or otherwise), thinking deeply about what this study says (and does not say) is critical. Here are five questions you likely didn't think to ask about Pew’s Health Online 2013 study. 

  1. Is Search the Center of the Online Health Universe? Pew’s research has focused on how people looking proactively for health content find and use this information. However, an unintended side effect of this focus is that many conversations about online health information consumption begin and end with search. In our studies, we’ve learned that while search is important, it is not the only way people encounter (and are influenced by) online health content. We need to expand our horizons and look at the various ways people consume digital health content – whether they are looking for it or not. 

  2. Does Offline Trump Online When it Comes to Health Information Consumption? Because digital consumes so much mindshare, we sometimes forget that there is a very human, face-to-face component of health communication. Pew has found that people have more sustained conversations with clinicians offline rather than the Web. In addition, our research with online moms, who are considered digital power users, suggests that friends and family along with providers play a big role in shaping their thinking about health and wellness. Digital is important, but humans are paramount in health. 

  3. Are We Paying Enough Attention to People of Color in Digital Health?
    Time and time again, Pew has reported that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to use mobile phones to conduct health searches. We’ve also found (again among online moms) that minorities are downloading mobile health apps in greater numbers. People of color are playing a big role in digital health, but we don’t hear much about them. It’s past time for us to pay more attention to minority groups and investigate what makes them tick in digital health. 

  4. Does Social Media Really Matter in Health? It may be controversial to say this, but in some cases social media may not matter in health as much as we think. Pew has found consistently that many people are not turning to social networks first (or even later) to find health information. In our research, we’ve learned that health content is not being consumed very often – except during public health crises like the recent flu epidemic – in social media. We can’t dismiss social, but we need to do more work to understand how it truly works in health. 

  5. Is the Digital Health Money Train Off the Tracks? Rock Health, the digital health startup incubator, has published a range of research looking at investment activity in this space. In its latest digital health funding report (published at the end of 2012), Rock Health reported that $150 million had been invested in tracking technologies. Yet, according to Pew, fewer than 11% of U.S. adults have used mobile tracking software. While 11% represents millions of potential users, it’s clear that more data on digital health consumer demand for new technologies is required to help investors and companies make sound decisions.  

For more on these questions I encourage you to view this presentation I published to SlideShare recently. It features much more data and analysis. 

Digital health received a tremendous amount of attention at the recent Consumer Electronics Association conference. It’s clear that the hope (and hype) surrounding digital health is at a fever pitch. Because of this, we have an added responsibility to look deeply at the digital health trend research we consume and ask hard questions about what it is really telling us. This is the only way we’ll realize the true potential of digital health to shape health and wellness.

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2 comments about "5 Questions You Didn't Think to Ask About Pew Internet's Health Online 2013 Study ".
  1. Kathleen McQuone-Elliott from International Medical Information (IMI) , January 21, 2013 at 5:51 a.m.
    As Medical Publishers and digital media providers to healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients, we found this article really helpful and thought provoking. We provide HCPs with updated content via MedicalUpdateOnline.com and we soon will be launching MyMedicines.ie to provide patients with medical information and help with their medicines. We agree that accurate information is essentional to patient care and compliance of medication. Education is key and just using searching alone is a dangerous road. @MedUpdateOnline @MyMedicines.ie kathleen@medicalimi.com
  2. Kelley Connors from KC Healthcare Communications LLC , February 8, 2013 at 10:25 a.m.
    Fard, great insights on the Pew Data, what it says and what it doesn't say. Although health is a desired outcome of healthcare, what we know is that health is really a proxy for what matters most in people's lives. Public health models for behavior change are multi-dimensional and are impacted by systems (environment, access to care, family and social, etc) that make glossing over data easy but void of meaning. You bring home the point that data is simply not enough, you need to understand the multi-dimensional factors that can drive digital health behavior, for example.