Who hasn’t Googled some medical or health topic? And who hasn’t wondered if the information they found is true, useful and relates to them?
A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project asked more than 3,000 Americans about their online searches for information about their health issues to find out what they’re doing with the stuff they find.
As reported on MedCityNews.com, more than 7 in 10 telephone respondents were described as “online health seekers,” meaning they said they had looked for some kind of health information online in the last year. Of those who did, nearly 6 in 10 were described as “online diagnosers.” They weren’t just curious, they were goal-oriented-their reason for searching online was to figure out what medical condition they or someone they knew had.
According to the survey, about 35 in 100 U.S. adults are “online diagnosers,” and women are more likely to join that club than men.
That’s good in the sense that people need to be actively involved in their health care in order to get the most out of the system and to get the best outcome, but when does curiosity overtake good sense? What’s the risk of medical searchers serving as their own doctors?
Not much, the survey seemed to say.
Slightly more than half of the online diagnosers, MedCity News reported, said they consulted with a medical professional about what they found online. More than 4 in 10 said a medical professional confirmed or partially confirmed the information they found online. Nearly 2 in 10 said they consulted a medical professional who did not agree or couldn’t come to a conclusion.
Of course, said MedCityNews, “We can’t assume that everyone who claimed her doctor backed up his suspicions was truly able to ‘diagnose’ herself accurately using just information from the Web. …. We also don’t know that all of those physician diagnoses were accurate.”
Pew’s mission was to measure the scope of how medical information online is being used; its intention wasn’t to measure the quality of the information.
But the real message of the survey is that despite a robust interest in finding health info online and applying it-or not-to one’s own situation, 7 in 10 respondents still consulted a medical profession when they had a health issue.
And it’s interesting to note that since 2000, when Pew began tracking online health searches, half of the searchers aren’t online diagnosers-they’re looking for information on behalf of someone else.
And pay walls are significant barriers to searchers-1 in 4 respondents said they hit a pay wall during their search, but only 2 in 100 paid to get the information. The rest looked elsewhere or gave up.
The most popular topics for information seekers who weren’t online diagnosers were: specific medical treatments and procedures (See our blog, “Where to Go for Information About Medical Screening Tests”); weight loss; and health insurance. One in 5 reviewed specific drug information, doctors or hospitals.
Pew concluded that although the Internet is a popular and increasingly important tool for health-care consumers, most conversations about health and medicine still occur among live participants in a setting that’s real, not virtual.