Web Helping Patients Make Medical Decisions

Half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say the information has improved the way they take care of themselves, according to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Many of the respondents also report that online information has directly affected their decisions about how to treat illness and deal with their doctors. The study asked Internet users to describe the most recent time they went online for health information. Nearly half (47 percent) of the people who were seeking health information for themselves say the online material influenced their decisions about treatment and care and 36 percent of those seeking information on behalf of others say it influenced their decisions. According to the users, the information from the Web helped them decide how to treat an illness, prepared them to ask more questions of their doctors or seek second opinions, and helped them decide whether to go to the doctor or not.

The report, “The Online Healthcare Revolution: How the Web Helps Americans Take Better Care of Themselves,” found that 52 million American adults have sought health and medical information on the Web and it calls them “health seekers.” A majority of them go online at least once a month to get 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 facetime 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 that 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 their medical information. Nearly 90 percent (89 percent) of health seekers say they are worried that Internet companies will collect and share data about the Web sites they visited; 85 percent say they fear that insurance companies might change their coverage after finding out what online information they accessed; and 52 percent fret that their employers might learn what kind of medical material they accessed.

The research also found that the search strategies of online health seekers are scattershot. Most report that the last time they went online looking for health information they found what they needed. But they also 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.

“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. “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.”

According to the report, women are much more likely than men to use the Internet to get health and medical information. It also found 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 herself or on behalf of someone else.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • 26 percent of health seekers have gone online to get information about mental illness; and 16 percent of health seekers have used the Internet to get information on a sensitive health subject that is hard to talk about.
  • Very few health seekers use the Internet to interact with their doctors (only 9 percent have exchanged emails with the doctor), few have purchased medicine or vitamins, and few have consulted online doctors.
  • Asked about their most recent search for health information, 54 percent of health seekers said they were looking on behalf of someone else; 43 percent were looking for themselves.
  • 63 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.
  • 81 percent of health seekers think people should be able to sue a health or medical site if it gives away information about its customers after saying it would not. There is no current federal policy that gives them such a right to sue.

The Pew Internet Project’s findings come from several surveys. Figures about the size and composition of the health-seeker cohort come from surveys conducted almost continuously from March 1 to August 20. In those, 12,751 adults age 18 and over were interviewed, 6,413 of them were Internet users. Findings about privacy came from questions asked in a survey in July and August of 2,109 persons, some 1,101 of whom are Internet users. Finally, a special survey of 521 health seekers was conducted in August to probe more deeply into their behavior and attitudes, with a focus on the search they conducted the last time they went online for health information.

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