Online Health Consumers More Proactive About Healthcare

The more patients use the Web for health-related purposes, the stronger their response to the call to action issued by healthcare companies, according to a study The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Those who use the Internet frequently are two to three times more likely than infrequent users to take action that affects their diagnosis and treatment. For example, the data that patients find online result in their asking their physicians more questions and in greater detail. But when patients who frequently use the Internet for health consult with their doctors, about 36 percent suggest the specific illnesses that they are suffering from and 45 percent request specific treatments. For comparison, among those who hardly ever venture online to find health information, only 16 percent and 19 percent of patients, respectively, exhibit the same active involvement.

The BCG also found different patterns for visitors to healthcare sites when compared to other consumer sites. Although the Internet is increasing its influence on how patients approach their healthcare, strategies borrowed from consumer sites fail to reach them. However, emerging shifts in how people search for health care information will present industry players with new opportunities to engage and capture patients online.

“Two contradictory findings have surfaced. On one hand, patients who use the Internet to explore health issues report that the information they find online has a real impact on how they manage their overall care and comply with prescribed treatments, making the Web an important lever for companies seeking to get patients more involved in care decisions,” said Deborah Lovich, a BCG vice president and co-leader of the firm’s e-health initiative. “Yet, typical online traffic-building strategies don’t seem to work, since usage patterns in e-health bear little resemblance to those in e-commerce.”

Harnessing the power of the Internet will be daunting for health care companies, since reaching patients online is difficult. BCG’s research also found key dissimilarities between the searching behaviors of patients and consumers. Unlike consumers seeking other information online, patients don’t explore health topics on the Web at their leisure or for entertainment. In fact, the vast majority — 77 percent — use the Internet for health issues only when they have specific questions.

The same Internet users who might visit an auto site to find information about cars or visit and return to Amazon to purchase books typically don’t turn to health sites directly when searching for health information. To answer their health queries on the Web, 65 percent of patients usually start with general search engines such as Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, and Alta Vista. Only 24 percent make health portals such as WebMD and InteliHealth their first stop; a mere 11 percent start with disease-specific Web sites such as or MSWatch. And even those who favor specific health-related sites reported to BCG that they initially found them through general search engines.

A survey by Harris Interactive found that traffic on individual e-health sites is critically dependent on how quickly and easily the sites are found and listed by portals and search engines.

Almost 100 million adults, which Harris Interactive calls “Cyberchondriacs,” go online to look for healthcare information. On average, they do this three times a month. Typically they navigate these sites using a portal or search engine rather than by going directly to a particular site. Only one in four goes directly to an e-health Web site. Harris Interactive conducted a telephone survey 675 adults who are online from home, office, school, library or some other location in March 2001.

Key findings of the Harris survey include:

  • 75 percent of all adults online (47 percent of all adults) use the Internet to look for healthcare information. However, only 16 percent say they do this “often”, while most do so “sometimes” (30 percent), or “hardly ever” (30 percent).
  • This 75 percent of all those online amounts to just under 100 million adults nationwide.
  • On average those who look for health care information online do so 3.3 times every month. This varies from 6.1 times among heavy Internet users to 1.3 times among light users.
  • A slender 52 percent majority of those who look for health care information do so using a portal or search engine that allows them to search for the health information they seek across many different Web sites. About a quarter (24 percent) go directly to a site that focuses only on health-related topics and one in six (16 percent) go first to a general site that focuses on many topics that may have a section on health issues.

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