Web searches affect healthcare decisions

Pharmaceutical Representative

Half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say this information has improved the way they take care of themselves.

Half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say this information has improved the way they take care of themselves, and many report that online information has directly affected their decisions about how to treat illness and deal with their doctors, according to a report from the Washington-based Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The study involved a survey that asked Internet users to describe the most recent time they went online for health information. Some 47% of the people who were seeking health information for themselves, and 36% of those seeking information on behalf of others, say the online material influenced their decisions about treatment and care.

According to the results of the survey, these Internet users say that the information drawn from the Web helped them decide how to treat an illness, prepped them to ask more questions of their doctors or seek second opinions, and helped them decide whether to go to the doctor or not.

Health-seekers

The report, titled "The Online Health Care Revolution: How the Web Helps Americans Take Better Care of Themselves," finds that 52 million American adults - referred to in the report as "health-seekers" - have sought health and medical information on the Web. Most of them go online at least once a month for health information.

"The emergence of this group - the health-seekers - illustrates perhaps the most profound and dramatic impact the Internet is having on Americans," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. "In an era when the face time a patient gets with a doctor during an average appointment has dipped below 15 minutes, many are turning to the Web get the information they crave so they can make decisions about how to care for themselves and their loved ones."

This growing reliance of Americans on the Internet for health information raises several important issues. Most Internet users are worried about their online privacy, especially when it comes to the sensitive subject of their medical information. Fully 89% of health-seekers say they are worried that Internet companies will collect and share data about the Web sites they visit; 85% say they fear that insurance companies might change their coverage after finding out what online information they accessed; and 52% are concerned that their employers might learn what kind of medical material they accessed.

Most online health-seekers report that the last time they went hunting online for health information, they got the facts they needed. However, they relied on Internet searches without the benefit of professional advice and often got information from Web sites they had never heard of before they began the search.

Action-oriented

"This should be a wake-up call to medical professionals: Patients are action-oriented when they go online for health information, and they will search for it any way they can," said Susannah Fox, director of research at the Pew Internet Project and the principal author of this study. "They would probably like help from their doctors in pointing them to the best places for these Internet searches, and they really want doctors to answer the questions that emerge during that research about how to treat the sick."

The report highlights the fact that women are much more likely than men to use the Internet to get health and medical information. It also points out that the online behavior of those in excellent health differs from those who are in less-than-excellent health, and that the result of the search often depends on whether the health-seeker is looking for information on behalf of him or herself or someone else.

Some other key findings from the Pew Internet Project report that:


•Â Twenty-six percent of health-seekers have gone online to get information about mental illness, and 16% of health-seekers have used the Internet to get information on a sensitive health subject that is hard to talk about.


•Â Very few health-seekers use the Internet to interact with their doctors (only 9% have exchanged e-mails with their doctors), few have purchased medicine or vitamins, and few have consulted online doctors.


•Â Sixty-three percent of health-seekers oppose the idea of keeping medical records online, even at a secure, password-protected site, because they fear other people will see those records.


•Â Eighty-one percent think people should be able to sue a health or medical company if it gives away information about customers after saying it will not. No current federal policy gives them such a right. PR