Online Health Searches the Third Most Popular Web Activity: Study

A new Pew report reveals that health research was among the most popular tasks for online users, particularly women.

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Searching for online health information was the third most popular Web activity for Internet users behind e-mail and using a search engine, according to a new study by the nonprofit research firm Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Eight in 10 Internet users researched health information online, Pew reported in its Health Topics survey, conducted from Aug. 9 to Sept. 13, 2010. The California HealthCare Foundation sponsored the survey.

In fact, 80 percent of American Internet users research health topics on the Internet, and 59 percent of the U.S. population overall, according to Pew. Topics to research include diseases, procedures, doctors, hospitals and insurance.

The survey found that 66 percent of Web users searched for treatments for a specific medical condition, while 44 percent researched doctors online and 33 percent looked for health insurance on the Web.

Susannah Fox, Pew's associate director for digital strategy, used a crowd sourcing method to determine the categories of health topics that people search for online, including Twitter and comments posted to a blog entry. Topics added to this survey include food safety, pregnancy and memory loss.

For the survey, released on Feb. 1, Fox also sought input from groups such as patients, midwives, pharmacists, health economists, doctors and nurses, she said. The report found that 29 percent of Internet users looked on the Web for information on food safety or recalls, 19 percent searched online for information about pregnancy and childbirth and 12 percent sought information on long-term care for the elderly or disabled.

Since 2000, Pew has found that women are more likely to search for health topics than men, Fox said. Of the women surveyed, 74 percent searched for information on a specific disease or medical problem compared with 57 percent of men.

Men and women access the Internet in virtually equal numbers, but more women searched for health information. Health topics such as food recalls, pregnancy and childbirth, or simply searching for doctors, drew women more to the Web.

In addition to women, caregiverswere also heavy searchers for health information, according to the report, with 79 percent of caregivers connected to the Internet and 88 percent of them searching for health information.

With funding from the California HealthCare Foundation, Pew was able to add Spanish-language interviews to the research pool, Fox said.

"With a lot of phone surveys, if they don't speak English, you get a skewed portion of population," Fox told eWEEK. They're obviously more assimilated."

Women, whites and the more highly educated were more likely to access health information online compared with men, Latinos and African-Americans and less educated, according to Pew. Still, Latinos and African-Americans were more likely to access health information on mobile devices, however.

In addition, a "health information divide" exists between those with disabilities and those without, Fox suggested.

"There's a magnifying effect for people living with disabilities," Fox said. "Those groups were less likely to have Internet access, which depresses their ability to stay up to date on the topics people search for, whether it's a specific treatment or a drug recall."