Workers Surfing More for Health Data

May 31, 2002 ( - Americans increasingly go online to search for medical information, a new survey found.

The survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that an average six million Americans surf the Web for health information each day while 62% of Internet users (73 million people) reported that they’ve gone online for medical advice – termed “health seekers” in the study. The 73-million figure was up dramatically from the Pew November 2000, which put the number of online health information consumers at 52 million.

Significantly, the Pew survey found that only about a third of health seekers follow the medical profession’s recommendation to show what they found online to their family doctor before adopting it. Why? Three quarters of respondents said most or all of the health information on the Internet is believable.

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Health seekers are more likely to be women (72%) than men (51%) and between 50 and 64 years old (71%) compared to the twenty-something crowd where 53% looked online for health information.

The health topics for which people searched include:

  • a specified illness or condition, 93%
  • nutrition, exercise, or weight control, 65%
  • prescription drugs, 64%
  • alternative or experimental treatments or medications, 48%
  • a mental health issue such as depression, 39%
  • a health topic too sensitive to talk about, 33%
  • background about a doctor or hospital, 32%.

Internet users told Pew researchers that they were usually successful in finding what they were looking for (82%). They’re using the information they come up with in dealing with their health issues with 61% saying the online data helped them “some” or “a lot.”

About a third of respondents said they knew someone who had been helped by online health data.

The silver lining for the medical profession in the Pew study is that although many more patients are pointing and clicking for health information, they still mostly rely on physicians for firm diagnoses.

Only 18% of e-patients say they have used online advice to diagnose a medical condition on their own rather than consult a doctor. In fact, online health information apparently is improving doctor-patient discussions. Some 37% percent of patients say they talked to their doctor about the information they found online, and 79% report their doctor was interested in the information.

The Pew report comes from two surveys by Princeton Survey Research Associates – one conducted between June 19 and August 6, 2001 of 500 Internet users and a second between March 1 and March 31, 2002 of 2,410 adults.

You can get a full copy of the survey at