Commentary

Consumers' Search For Health Info Grows

Demand for high quality and personalized health information among consumers is exploding as a result of several national trends. Consumers are increasingly assuming decision-making responsibility for almost all aspects of health care, as employers--facing dramatic health insurance premium increases--are increasingly pushing employees to enroll in high deductible health plans. These plans give consumers substantial authority over what, when, and where health-care services are utilized.

Another major trend is the aging of society. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, estimates show that the percentage of people 65 years of age and older will increase from about 12.4% in 2006 to 20% of the U.S. population by 2030 (. As a result, a substantial proportion of Americans will be living longer and have more chronic health conditions.

And as biomedical discoveries continue to generate new information and invalidate current information, consumers need to be able to filter this voluminous information into their individual context and preferences.

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During the early years of the Web, consumers typically went to destination health Web sites and browsed for health information. With the rise of major general search engines such as Google, consumers have defaulted to search engines as their preferred method for finding health information.

According to Pew Internet, about 81% of consumers looking for online health information use a search engine. In addition, in a recent report by Jupiter Research,18% of online consumers said they relied significantly more on search engines to find health information than they did one year ago, and 46% of online consumers searched for health information at least monthly. However, the same report showed that only 16 % of online consumers searching for health information found what they were looking for.

Several limitations of general search engines are evident. Most search engines do not perform satisfactorily for health queries because of their lack of focus on quality of results, their inability to provide individually relevant results, and their inability to "understand" queries in a health context. Quality of results is a frequent problem for searches on health topics such as alternative medicine, nutrition and supplements, prescription drugs, and disease cures.

The ability to ensure high quality and personalized search results is perhaps more important in the health domain than in any other industry, because the consequences of using unreliable and irrelevant health information can be very severe. Thus, there is a need for search engines that address the unique complexities of health information search and that can provide reliable and personalized search results.

Several health-optimized search engines have recently launched to address the limitations of general search engines. These new vertical search engines typically use algorithms, semantic analysis, and other technologies to guide users through the search process and to provide highly focused and personally relevant results.

Without a doubt, consumer demand for health information will continue to grow dramatically as society grapples with the challenging issues of aging, increasing healthcare costs, and decreasing support for healthcare consumers. Providing people with novel health search tools will empower consumers to make the best health decisions and live healthier lives.

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