A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 8 out of 10 internet users search for health information. In response, Software Advice blogger Houston Neal suggested, "Doctors have an opportunity and obligation to join us in sharing information online." Sounds good, but ideally effective online interaction should begin with offline conversations. If doctors don't understand which patients are searching and why, they will not be able to engage effectively online.
The Pew survey reported the following about internet users and health information:
- Women, non-Hispanic whites, younger adults and those with higher levels of education and income are more likely to search for online health information.
- Users fall into one of three categories: adults who are providing unpaid care for a family member, people who face a serious medical illness and those who have a chronic disease or disability.
- Most searches relate to a specific disease or medical problem and the associated therapies. Information about health professions and hospitals/medical facilities were also common search topics.
- Fewer than 20% of respondents reported looking for information on medical test results, managing chronic and long term care.
- Only 7% of respondents said they searched for information about end of life care.
What are the implications of these findings? Physicians should speak with patients to determine how extensively they use the internet. Among frequent users, physicians can play an important role in guiding patients to reputable sources. Finally, healthcare providers should recognize that they are still a primary source of information for certain types of information, especially when it comes to end of life issues.
How are you communicating with your patients about online health information?