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Internet Giving Rise to Peer-to-Peer Healthcare

Healthcare
The majority of Americans have tapped into the Internet for healthcare information, giving rise to a new class of e-patients who are increasingly comparing notes with each other about medical issues, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

In a telephone survey conducted in partnership with the California HealthCare Foundation, Pew found that 61 percent of adult Americans look for medical information online. Of those, 59 percent seek out Web 2.0 content like reviews written by patients, blogs and podcasts about health issues.

"We are beginning to see e-patients turning to interactive features both to help them find information tailored to their needs and to post their own contributions," Susannah Fox, the study's author, said in a statement. "They treat the Internet as a supplement to traditional sources of information."

Pew's study, entitled "The Social Life of Health Information," comes as the Internet has moved into the heart of the debate over healthcare policy in Washington.

Companies like Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) have introduced personal healthcare portals for patients to manage their medical histories online, and President Obama and some members of Congress are backing policies that would require medical providers to digitize their records.

While privacy remains a major stumbling block in the push for health IT, Pew's study demonstrates the extent to which the Internet has become a resource for medical information.

The 61 percent of adults looking for health information online in Pew's latest report compares to the figure of 25 percent Pew found when it conducted a similar study in 2000.

Pew attributes the uptick to a sharp increase in the number of Americans accessing the Web through high-speed and mobile connections, as well as the rise of collaborative and social applications like blogs and wikis.

As an information hub, WebMD stands as exhibit A. But other sites have spring up that offer a more community-oriented approach. One example is Patients Like Me, an online community where people create profiles and share their experiences coping with illnesses.

Pew found that 41 percent of e-patients have read a fellow patient's comments about health or medical issues in an online forum, Web site or blog.