Online Healthcare Information – Who Uses It (& How)

Healthcare providers often cringe at the thought of their patients trying to diagnose their conditions online – even while millions are spent on advertising to lure us to one site or another for information about our health. Not surprisingly, much of that is spent by those seeking to “inform” us about their drug or treatment.

Regardless of why we’re doing it, though, a growing number of us are looking to the web for information about our health or that of loved ones.  8 of 9 internet users did just that in the last year, according to a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Just as many of us went online seeking information on behalf of another person (a family caregiver for their senior loved one, for example) as for their own health needs. We are pondering that insight and others from the report, as well as some tidbits that commercial health information providers probably are receiving happily.

Healthcare Searches – More Potential for Seniors

While we think of seniors having more of a need and thus interest in healthcare issues than other groups, that is not borne out in their use of the internet to learn about health topics. While 75% of web-active younger adults have gone online looking for health information, less than 60% of senior internet users have done so. Is it because seniors’ use of the web is not as advanced, because their confidence in what they find on the web is lower, or maybe because they are more likely to see a health professional on a regular basis? It would be interesting to know.

One thing we found promising, not just for seniors but for Senior Care Corner, is that 14% of all internet users looked online for information related to caring for an aging friend or loved one. Even in that area, though, seniors’ activity lagged well behind other groups. As we know from the response we receive, there are many family caregivers actively seeking information to help improve the life of senior loved ones.

What’s that? You say you’re not a family caregiver? You must have missed our video “You Might Be a Family Caregiver,” because simply searching online for healthcare information addressing the need of an aging loved one makes you a family caregiver!

Online Diagnoses – More Accurate Than Some Might Want to Think

These are some of the interesting findings from the study about adults in the US seeking a diagnosis online.

  • More than 1/3 of adults have sought to diagnose a condition, either their own or someone else’s, online (seniors were least likely to do so).
  • Just over half of those followed up by communicating or meeting with a health professional after going online. Interestingly, the oldest and youngest adults trailed the middle groups here.
  • 4 out of 5 who went online for their diagnosis and then communicated with a health professional had their online diagnosis confirmed.

What we don’t know – the study wasn’t designed for this – is how many of the almost half who decided self treatment was satisfactory were correct and how many suffered as a result.

The study sure seems to indicate there’s value to seeking healthcare information online, though we hope nobody is getting a false sense of security from what they learn and missing out on a truly needed visit to a healthcare professional.

Comparison Shopping for Healthcare (or Not)

4 out of 5 Internet users in the US used the web in the last year to research a product or service they were considering and almost 2 of 5 say they’ve rated a product, service or provider online. That doesn’t extend to healthcare, though, where only 1 in 5 have used rankings on the web.

We find it ironic that fewer are looking at healthcare rankings online because we feel those tend to be more objectively based than many of the reviews you would find for other products and services. Many of those are posted by government agencies or healthcare providers using measures that, while maybe not perfect, would tend to assure more consistency between ratings within a single set of rankings.

Maybe the lack of use says a lot about public awareness of healthcare reviews and rankings than anything else. It’s probably more enjoyable, too, seeking reviews when deciding which car or TV to buy than when trying to determine which nursing home would be the best at meeting Mom’s wants and needs.

Paying for Health Information Unpopular

A quarter of internet users conducting searches for healthcare information hit a point at which they were told they needed to pay for the information being sought. We’re not surprised, as a growing number of information sites are trying to “monetize” by charging for access to some or all of their holdings. Only 2% chose to pay, though, with the vast majority deciding to move on and seek the same information elsewhere. Unfortunately, a small fraction simply gave up out of frustration. Hopefully they found the information they needed from somewhere else eventually.

Those who spend money advertising their healthcare information sites may not be faring much better than the pay-for-information sources (there is probably some who do both, of course). Rather than starting their research by looking on a specific site, 4 out of 5 started at a search engine (such as Google, Bing or Yahoo).

What All This Means

There are many takeaways from this information, enough to justify another whole post or even an episode of the Senior Care Corner Show, so we are likely to revisit this in conjunction with other information. In the meantime, we see these as key points.

  • Family caregivers need to continue stepping up and seeking online healthcare information for senior loved ones while at the same time providing opportunities for seniors to learn how to do so safely and comfortably themselves.
  • More needs to be done to inform the public about web-based reviews and rankings that exist regarding healthcare services and providers (and we will).
  • While it is great to see so many choosing to educate themselves about healthcare online, we need to reinforce the importance of consulting healthcare professionals.

We will be discussing this and related topics much more at Senior Care Corner. We appreciate the resources from Pew Research and find them to be a great source of insight.

1 thought on “Online Healthcare Information – Who Uses It (& How)”

  1. There is a lack of information online and my partner and I recently launched Golden Reviews to change that. We are on a mission to improve senior care in the USA with instant transparency via reviews. Exciting to see wonderful articles such as this one embracing our cause.

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