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Search Engines Power Help With Health

When Internet users in the U.S. need health information, they are far more likely to use search engines as a starting point rather than specific health or medical-related sites such as WebMD.

That's one of the conclusions of a major study just released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (IALP), a Washington D.C. non-profit research group.

In the survey of Internet users, about 66 percent seeking health-related information began their inquiry at a search engine, while only 27 percent began at a specific health-related Web site like WebMD, which bills itself as "America's leading source of health information online."

According to a company spokesperson, WebMD has more than 30 million unique users each month.

Only 15 percent of those surveyed say they "always" check the source and date of the health information they find online, while another 10 percent said they do so "most of the time."

The Pew study found that around three-quarters of online health seekers, about 85 million Americans, gather health advice without consistently examining the quality indicators of the information they find.

Interestingly, even with the growth in broadband and ubiquity of Internet access, the percentage of users seeking health information has barely changed in the past four years.

In 2002, the Pew study said, 63 percent used the Internet to look for a specific disease or medical problem. That number increased to 66 percent in 2004 and dipped slightly in the 2006 survey to 64 percent.

With the explosion in health information online, the Web's increasing popularity as a medical reference tool is no surprise. "What people appreciate about the Internet as an information resource is that it's 24 x 7 and doctors are not," said Susannah Fox, associate director at Pew.

It's also not always people looking for themselves. The Pew study shows that half the time people are scouring the Internet for medical information on behalf of someone else, like a family member or friend whose been injured or taken ill.

Surprisingly, the study also found there was no notable difference in whether or not Internet users had health insurance; about an equal number of insured and uninsured used the Web for medical advice and information.

"There also wasn't a significant difference between those with a propensity to self-diagnose and those who don’t," said Fox. "They're all taking advantage of the information that's out there."

Health-related topics are one of the most popular searches on the Internet. The Pew study indicates seven percent, or about 10 million Americans adults searched for information on at least one health topic on a typical day in August, 2006.

This places health searches at about the same level of popularity on a typical day as paying bills online, reading blogs, or using the Internet to look up a phone number or address, according to Pew.

Only 11 percent of those seeking health information on the Internet described the result as having a major impact, 42 percent said the impact was minor and 53 percent said it had it had "some kind of impact" in how they take care of themselves or someone else.

Of those who said their health search had some kind of impact, 58 percent said their most recent search affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.

Fifty-five percent said the information changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help take care of.

About the same percentage said the information led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.

While most, 74 percent, of online health seekers said they felt "reassured" that they could make appropriate health care decisions, 25 percent said they were "overwhelmed" by the amount of information online.

Conversely, 22 percent said they were "frustrated" by a lack of information or an inability to find what they were looking for online.

The study was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International in August of this year among a sample of 2,982 adults 18 and older.