NorthPoint Domain

Patients’ Social Lives Enhanced by Internet

Caregivers seek health information online more than other groups

Internet media is playing a growing role in the social lives of patients, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center on May 12, 2011. The availability of more and more social tools combined with increasing motivation, especially on the part of people living with chronic conditions, is driving this online conversation about health.

Seventy-four percent of adults in the United States use the Internet. Eighty percent of these (represented more so by women, non-Hispanic whites, younger adults, and those with higher levels of education and income) have looked online for information on a specific disease or treatment; this correlates to about 59 percent of all U.S. adults. And although health professionals and offline resources continue to be central to patients' care, especially when it comes to technical medical issues, social media and online tools are becoming two of the top avenues for information gathering, story sharing, and discussing of concerns. Pew researchers sought to investigate this trend by conducting telephone interviews with 3,001 American men and women between August 9 and September 13, 2010. Interviews were done in English or Spanish, and all participants were 18 years or older. The response rates were 13.6 and 17 percent, for landline and cellular telephones, respectively.

The researchers drew several conclusions. While social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace are extremely popular, barely one quarter of their users follow friends or family members for health updates. Caregivers, however, are significantly more likely than other groups to use social network sites for health-related activities. People with one or more chronic condition or disability are also significantly more likely to turn to social networks for help. Unfortunately these groups are not likely to attend in-person support groups, but online networks provide an easier — and anonymous — option. The authors found that consumers did not utilize hospital ranking and doctor review sites very much at all (only about 15 percent had).

Overall, 30 percent of those surveyed said they or someone they know has been helped by online health information, with the majority saying it was “moderate” help, versus major or minor. Again, caregivers were most likely to be helped — 44 percent were. In the same vein, the researchers found that nearly half (48 percent) of Internet users who go online for health information reported that their last search was on behalf of someone else. Only three percent of adults said they or someone they know was harmed by Internet information.

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, a project of the Pew Research Center. 2011. The social life of health information, 2011. Accessed on May 12, 2011 on their website.