Users Play Doctor Dot-Com

With a full 80 percent of American Internet users searching for at least one of 16 health topics online, the activity is only slightly behind using email (93 percent) and researching products (83 percent). The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that as of the end of 2002, roughly 93 million Americans were “health seekers” – Internet users who search online for information on health topics whether they are acting as consumers, caregivers, or e-patients – marking a significant increase from March 2000 when 54 percent indicated that they looked for health information online.

The information-gathering has been helpful, as 73 percent of health seekers say the Internet has improved the health information and services they receive. With 87 percent of the nearly 2,000 respondents claiming to be living with a chronic illness or disability, online resources could help them become well-informed patients.

Women are more apt to search most of the Pew-identified topics, particularly when related to a specific disease or medical problem – 72 percent vs. 54 percent. However, the men take the lead in the areas of sexual health information (12 percent compared to 9 percent); problems with drugs and alcohol (9 percent compared to 8 percent); and information on how to quit smoking (7 percent vs. 5 percent).

What Are Health Seekers Looking For?
Health Topic Internet Users Who Have
Searched for Info on It
Specific disease or medical problem 63%
Certain medical treatment or procedure 47%
Diet, nutrition, vitamins, or nutritional supplements 44%
Exercise or fitness 36%
Prescription or over-the-counter drugs 34%
Alternative treatments or medicines 28%
Health insurance 25%
Depression, anxiety, stress, or mental health issues 21%
A particular doctor or hospital 21%
Experimental treatments or medicines 18%
Environmental health hazards 17%
Immunizations or vaccinations 13%
Sexual health information 10%
Medicare or Medicaid 9%
Problems with drugs or alcohol 8%
How to quit smoking 6%
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

The majority of health seekers are likely to be well-educated, broadband-using veterans, with 6 or more years of online experience, and although the majority of the overall online population has conducted health searches, only 6 percent seek information on a typical day. Comparatively, 49 percent of surfers use email on a typical day, 19 percent research a product or service, and 5 percent make an online purchase.

“Health searches are not an everyday activity for most Americans,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. “But we have noticed that once an Internet user has been successful in an online endeavor, she will return to it the next time she has a similar problem or question, no matter how much time has lapsed between the searches.”

Since January 2003, Hitwise recorded 14 percent growth in U.S. visits to health and medical Web sites, and their analysis found that visitors spent an average of 6 minutes and 21 seconds per session during June 2003.

Top U.S. Health & Family Resources Destinations,
June 2003, Home and Work
Brand or Channel Unique
Time Per Person
(hh:mm:ss) 4,758,000 0:08:01
MSN WomenCentral 4,419,000 0:03:44
WebMD 4,235,000 0:12:28
AOL Health 3,803,000 0:11:01
MSN Health with WebMD 3,782,000 0:05:36 2,568,000 0:09:41
Weight Watchers 2,564,000 0:29:34
AOL Parenting 2,556,000 0:03:54 2,404,000 0:14:11
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings

Hitwise also found that most visitors to health and medical sites were female (61 percent vs. 39 percent), in the 35-to-44 age range (over 25 percent), and from a household that earned more than $75,000 per year (nearly 38 percent). Access occurred from home, rather than the office, by nearly 2-to-1.

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