Majority of Online Health-Related Queries Start on Search Engines

Sixty-six percent of online health-related queries originate on search engines rather than health-focused sites. “Online Health Search 2006” from Pew Internet & American Life Project finds almost half of health queries online are undertaken for another person.

About 113 million adults, or 80 percent of U.S. Internet users, have searched online for at least one of 17 health topics relating to health. Two or more sites were visited by 72 percent of the group of health searchers during their latest query. Although multiple sources are visited, only one quarter of the group say they always check the source and date of the information they look up. As many as half of the group claim they never check the source for the quality of information.

The report cites a second study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stating that 4 percent of “frequently visited” health Web sites disclosed the source of information on their pages. The finding suggests users aren’t accustomed to looking for the information even on less frequently visited health-related pages.

Other general Internet movements may contribute to the trend. “I noticed there has been a surge in the percentage of people with a high school education who have not attended college going online,” said Susannah Fox, associate director at Pew Internet. “The base of the Internet is broadening. People with less education are less likely to handle complex sources [according to the Center for Education statistics].”

Another factor in the lack of sourcing is that close to half (48 percent) of health seekers conduct queries for someone else. An Internet user may look up information to bring to a friend who is unable to go online or learn more about a condition a friend or family member was recently diagnosed with.

“That dovetails with the idea that they are bringing the information to their friends, and maybe the friend will check with the doctor or follow up on the source,” said Fox. In cases where a friend or family member has a condition or illness, “you can’t go to the doctor’s office and ask, but you can go to the Internet and look for information for reassurance or find out how bad the situation is.”

Search is gaining over established health Web sites. Sixty-six percent of Internet users looking for health information start at a search engine versus 27 percent who go to a health-related site. A quarter of searches in the category say they felt overwhelmed with the information they found online.

Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a telephone survey in August. Survey respondents included 2,928 adults over 18.

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