As U.S. Web users communicate online with peers about chronic conditions or rare diseases, patients still mainly consult with doctors offline, according to a new Pew report.
People in the United States
with chronic conditions or rare diseases are turning to family, friends and
other patients online for support, but when seeking advice from health
professionals they're staying mostly offline, according to a report by the Pew
Internet & American Life Project nonprofit research firm.
Although 23 percent of Internet users suffering from a chronic condition
such as high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer go online to communicate with
peers about their condition, only 5 percent received care or information from
a health professional online.
Of the subjects in the survey, 70 percent still seek help from health
professionals, though mostly offline, and 91 percent of U.S.
adults find doctors and nurses more helpful than sources such as friends and
Meanwhile, 15 percent of Internet users without a chronic condition went
online for health advice.
"What we wanted to do with this survey was hopefully knock down once
and for all the idea that the Internet is a replacement for health
professionals-it is not," Susannah Fox, associate director for digital
strategy at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told eWEEK.
"People still want to turn to a health professional for the technical
part of health care, and that includes a medical diagnosis, recommendations
about treatments such as prescription drugs [and] recommendation for a doctor
specialist or a hospital. Those sorts of things are still very much in the
domain of health professionals."
Web users communicate with peers using social networking sites, blogs,
e-mail and list servers, Pew reports.
"What this survey shows is that people want to connect with peer
resources like fellow patients, friends and family on other issues that have to
do with health, which are very important to them, like emotional support or a
quick remedy for an everyday health issue," Fox said.
The Internet is also a tool for those suffering from rare disorders, Fox
said, noting that these patients are able to find people in other cities or
countries who may be suffering from the same condition.
"We suspected that the Internet was especially important for people
living with rare disorders basically because they are unlikely to know anybody
in their own offline social network who shares the same condition," Fox
The report described how a mother of a small child suffering from a rare
disease found support online: "When a disease is so rare and there are no
folks in your town, and a few in your state who are going through what you're
going through, you need a support group that encompasses people from all over
the world," the mother said.
"We've seen in previous work that people want to connect with people
who share their same condition," Fox said. "This is the first time
we've been able to lock it down and see how prevalent is this in the general
For the study, Pew interviewed 3,001 people in the United
States over the telephone and 2,156 members
of the NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders) online.
The Pew report, released on Feb. 28, discussed a parallel track between
those using Internet tools such as social media to connect with others for
political purposes and people who seek health advice online.
"Where people gather together toward a political end, people are also
gathering together online for better health outcomes," Fox said.
This report could serve as a "reality check" that patients aren't
getting health information online as much as we would think, according to Fox.
"Even as we move into this era where so much communication is happening
online and as we move into an era in which electronic health records are going
to become more common, at this point it's still unusual to communicate online
with a doctor or health care professional. It's even unusual to communicate
about health with friends and family or fellow patients," Fox said.
Brian T. Horowitz is a freelance technology and health writer as well as a copy editor. Brian has worked on the tech beat since 1996 and covered health care IT and rugged mobile computing for eWEEK since 2010. He has contributed to more than 20 publications, including Computer Shopper, Fast Company, FOXNews.com, More, NYSE Magazine, Parents, ScientificAmerican.com, USA Weekend and Womansday.com, as well as other consumer and trade publications. Brian holds a B.A. from Hofstra University in New York.