According to a new Pew Internet & American Life Project study, the overwhelming majority of online health seekers say they get the information they need to help them make good medical decisions for themselves and for loved ones – even when they do quick, scattershot searches. 73 million Americans use the Internet to answer health questions, but only a quarter of them follow experts’ advice to carefully check the credibility of their sources.
Some 61% of these health seekers, or 45 million Americans, say online information has improved the way they take care of their health – a significant jump from 48% of online health searchers who reported such improvements when we did a similar survey in August 2000.
In practice, a typical searcher visits two to five sites during an average visit, typically finding them via a search engine or general portal. She (women are more likely than men to seek health information online) spends at least thirty minutes on a search. Once she begins to review online information, she often relies on her own common-sense judgment to determine the credibility of the information. She feels reassured by advice that matches what she already knew about a condition and by statements that are repeated at more than one site. And she is hardly credulous. Fully 73% of health seekers have at some point rejected information from a Web site during a health search for one reason or another. E-patients are most likely to reject sites that are "too commercial" and sites that do not clearly identify the source of the information.
Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, says "They often use the information in making important decisions about interacting with their doctors, getting diagnoses, and treatments. But e-patients are generally cautious about what they find. The ease of using the Internet and the abundance of health information online are not changing their entire approach to health care."
Health seekers are overwhelmingly pleased with the results of their searches, which often help them make decisions about when to consult doctors, which doctors to consult, what kind of treatments to pursue, and which medicines to take. Fully 82% report getting the information they need all the time or most of the time.
- Information about a particular illness, material about weight control, and facts about prescription drugs top the list of interests. Also, use of the Internet for mental health information and sensitive medical topics.
- Nearly a fifth of health seekers (18%) say they have gone online to diagnose or treat a medical condition on their own, without consulting their doctor.
- 48% of health seekers have looked for information about alternative or experimental treatments or medicines.
- Asked about their most recent episode of seeking online health information, 68% of health seekers say the material they found influenced their medical decisions.