Americans Go Online for Diagnoses but See Doctors for Advice: Pew Report

U.S. adults are turning to the Web to seek an answer on medical ailments, but physicians are still a primary resource for health care advice, according to a Pew report.

Online information sources are the new "chicken soup" and a resource for medical diagnoses, but people aren't turning away from doctors, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

The survey found that 35 percent of, or one in three, U.S. adults, have used the Internet to research a medical condition, Pew reported.

"Historically, people have always tried to answer their health questions at home and made personal choices about whether and when to consult a physician," the report stated. "Many have now added the Internet to their personal health toolbox, helping themselves and their loved ones better understand what might be ailing them."

Pew released the results of its "Health Online 2013" report Jan. 15. For the survey, Princeton Survey Research Associates International interviewed 3,014 U.S. adults from Aug. 7 to Sept. 6, 2012, over the phone on behalf of Pew.

Of those who researched their conditions online, 46 percent determined they needed to see a medical professional.

"Clinicians are still essential, but the Internet is a very important supplement for most Americans," Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and lead author of the report, told eWEEK.

When patients turned to doctors and clinicians to get a professional perspective on the information they researched online, their online diagnoses were usually accurate, according to Fox.

"More often than not, the clinician confirmed that what [patients] found online is correct," said Fox.

In fact, 53 percent of "online diagnoses" saw a doctor after searching online and 41 percent of respondents reported that a medical professional confirmed their findings. An additional 2 percent said a medical professional partially confirmed it, according to the report.

After researching a condition online, 38 percent believed they could take care of their condition at home.

When respondents looked up medical conditions online, half their research was for someone else, said Fox. "It's not just about self-diagnosis," she said.

In addition, eight in 10 U.S. adults surveyed began their inquiries with a search tool such as Google, Bing or Yahoo, Pew reported.

"When people start their health journey, they start at a search engine," said Fox.

Meanwhile, 13 percent of online health searchers visited a health resource Website such as WebMD. Only 2 percent began their search at a general resource such as Wikipedia, and 1 percent turned to a social media site such as Facebook.

Despite the trends in online diagnoses and the rise in availability of telehealth services, most consultations on health matters are occurring offline, according to Pew.

Of U.S. adults interviewed by Pew, 70 percent got information and care from a doctor or other health care professional and 60 percent consulted with friends and family. In addition, 24 percent received information or support from people who have the same health condition.

Among online searchers, health-related review sites showed little growth in use, Pew reported. One in five Internet users turned to online reviews and rankings of health care providers, but eight in 10 looked for general consumer products or services online.

Posting an individual health care review was not a popular activity as only 3 or 4 percent of Internet users contributed a health care review online.

"It's more popular in other sectors to read and write online reviews," said Fox. "In health care, it's not yet a popular activity."

Future surveys will incorporate questions on the use of mobile apps to research medical conditions, said Fox.

"It's going to be hard for us to differentiate what is a Website versus what is an app," said Fox. She noted that the use of online health apps is still low.