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.

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