Health info-seeking online

by Eszter Hargittai on May 18, 2005

Yesterday, the Pew Internet and American Life Project released its latest research report, this one on health information-seeking online. The study finds that 80% of users have searched for some type of health information online (it’s worth noting here that “health information” is defined broadly by including searches for diet and exercise or fitness in this category). Regarding material pertaining to a specific disease or medical problem, the survey of 537 users found that two-thirds have used the Internet as a resource.

One of the topics of interest to me in my research is seeing how different types of Internet access may result in different types of Web uses. The report shows that while 87% of those with a broadband connection at home sought some health information online, only 72% of those with a home dial-up connection did so as well. Also, Internet veterans (in this case people who’ve been online for six or more years) are considerably more likely to have engaged in such activity (86%) than those who have 2-3 years of online experience (66%).

Of course, we would need more information about all these users to draw any conclusions regarding the independent effects of certain factors. People who went online later and who don’t have high-speed connections at home may differ from others in various ways (e.g. lower income, lower education), which may then be related to their propensity to search for health information in the first place. Nonetheless, these relationships are interesting to observe. They support my arguments about the potential implications of connectivity quality and experience for types of uses.

The author of the report is Susannah Fox, Pew’s resident expert on the topic. She has been working in this area for several years and has put out other related reports in the past, e.g. one dealing with prescription drugs online and another looking at how users decide whether to trust online information when it comes to health matters.



Dirk 05.18.05 at 9:26 am

I work on several medical websites
(for ambulance-chasing lawyers) and have found that visitors from AOL result in higher conversion rates (they e-mail us) than from most search engines and other sources. AOL users typically do not use broadband connections. So maybe AOL members are less likely to look for medical information on the web, but once they get to a site, they follow up and turn into prospective legal clients more often, in my experience.

To conform with bar association requirements, these sites disclose their law firm sponsorships, but it’s clear that many visitors don’t read the disclosures or understand this connection.

BTW, there is a “Health on the Net Founcation”., that certifies medical sites, but I tend to doubt that many users look for that or any other certification.


stephen judd 05.18.05 at 5:00 pm

Speaking as one of your “internet veterans”, I remember doing this years ago when my brother-in-law had a rare lymphoma – the sort that an oncologist in New Zealand might see once or twice in 20 years. The oncologist in question was mighty pleased with my results.

In the last couple of days I’ve been vooming around on my own behalf, owing to crippling pain in the gall-bladder department. It’s truly horrifying to see how well obvious quackery rates in search results. It seems to me that online “information” on health matters is very much a mixed blessing. Those without at least a few clues are likely to find plausible bullshit, perhaps dangerous bullshit, that is indistinguishable from the real deal.

I await the American lawsuits against the publishers of websites promising “natural” cures from disappointed sufferers – or their estates.


agm 05.18.05 at 7:28 pm

Perhaps after some sort of threshhold period people just naturally refer to the Web for info?

BTW, I got halfway through the first sentence of the second paragraph when something clicked and I thought, “Hmm, this sounds like one of Ezster’s posts…”, and sure enough it was (for some reason I generally look at the author after I’ve read enough to decide whether to finish the post).


Eszter 05.18.05 at 8:41 pm

Thanks for the anecdotes, I’m interested in hearing about people’s experiences.

AGM – So did you decide to finish reading the post?;-)


Shai 05.19.05 at 1:23 am

I always self diagnose with the internet. It really irritates my GP.


Tracy W 05.20.05 at 1:18 am

I don’t see why the Internet veterans have looked for issue on health problems more commonly than relatively newcomers is a surprise. If health problems come along independently of internet access, and your likelihood of looking for info about them on the internet is independent of how long you’ve been on here, then the longer you’ve been on, the more likely you are to have had a health problem that you decided to look for info on the internet for.

And gosh, people with a faster connection have used it more!

These results are about as exciting and unexpected as surveying people at a casino and discovering the ones who have been gambling for more than 6 hours have lost more money on average than the ones who have been gambling for 2-3 hours. I can’t see any evidence from the report that the author attempted any more in-depth analysis than that.


Susannah Fox 05.23.05 at 2:17 pm

Thanks for the comments.

I agree that some of our findings document the obvious (broadband users get more out of the internet than dial-up users!) but I hope we also provide facts where there is often just speculation. For example, some people seem continually surprised to be reminded that one-third of American adults don’t go online. People who have been online a long time also often forget what it’s like to be a newbie or to have a slow connection. Part of my job is to remind policymakers, web designers, etc. that there are many kinds of internet users and to ask the question, what does it mean that 41% of broadband users have looked up info about particular doctors online compared to 19% of dial-up users? Are broadband users getting better care because of their online research? We don’t know the answers, but hopefully we can help ask the right questions.

Again, thanks for the feedback.

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