One in four Internet users are starting to track their own health information-including blood pressure, symptoms, diet, blood sugar levels and exercise routine-online, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project's The Social Life of Health Information 2011 report.
Specifically, American Internet users are motivated by "feedback loops," or online health indicators that other people may post about a specific problem or symptom. Many times, these posts point out problems about their own lives that people do not see themselves, according to Susannah Fox, associate director for digital strategy at Pew.
"We lack these feedback loops that let us know you're doing the right thing [or] you're not doing the right thing," Fox told eWEEK.
"People in general are disconnected from seeing the results of their health choices," she explained. "We don't see our arteries clogging up because of the two donuts we eat every morning for breakfast."
Online health information could help people close these feedback loops.
Reading a book called "The Decision Tree" by Thomas Goetz led Fox to research if people are tracking their weight, diet, exercise routine or other health indicators online, since those are potential elements of a health data feedback loop.
For the survey, Pew interviewed 3,001 adults ages 18 and older between Aug. 9 and Sept. 13, 2010.
Although Americans are seeking support and feedback from peers online, they mainly consult with their physicians offline.
Meanwhile, 80 percent of Internet users, or 59 percent of all adults, have researched health topics online, and 34 percent have read about health online on a newsgroup, Website or blog, Pew reports.
People are using the Internet to maintain their workout routines, post reviews of medications and raise awareness of chronic illnesses.
In addition, one in three caregivers use the Internet to look up drug reviews, according to the May 12 report.
"What this study shows is that caregivers are likely to be using the Internet and social tools to pursue health information," Fox said.
In addition, the Pew report found that 25 percent of Internet users surveyed have watched an online video about health information.
Internet users with chronic conditions such as diabetes or hypertension are also more likely to look up health information.
Despite the growth in people using the Internet to search for health information, only 15 percent of social networking users seek health information on these sites, Fox noted.
"A lot of people expect social networking sites to become everyone's first choice as a pathway to information. We're not seeing that in our health research," Fox said. "What we're seeing in the data is that people are using dedicated health arenas to talk about health, places like blogs, health sites or news stories about health."
Health information shared among Facebook friends is still a bit of "TMI," she noted. However, when people do post their health information online, their peers tend to notice.
Still, readers use the comment fields of mainstream news sites to respond to health articles and form a dialogue, she said.
In addition, 16 percent of Internet users have checked online doctor rankings, and 15 percent of users have consulted hospital reviews.
Pew conducted its research along with the California Healthcare Foundation, a philanthropy group focused on improving health care in that state.