YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Internet Access Alters How Users Approach Care

Health: A survey shows more Americans turning to the Web for medical information. Nearly half say it influenced medical decisions.


WASHINGTON — When Elise Roelands wanted to find out why her husband had kidney stones and how he could avoid them, she searched health sites on the Internet rather than going to a doctor.

"I learned some of the new treatments, and I learned it wasn't as terrible as I thought," said the 26-year-old hospice volunteer from Silver Spring, Md., who valued the convenience of clicking on Web pages from home.

A new survey of Americans' use of the Internet shows that Roelands is hardly alone in her online quest for medical information.

The survey, prepared by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, queried more than 12,000 people about their Internet habits in order to discover how the Internet has changed the way people make health decisions.

"There's tons of anecdotal evidence about this, but this is the first time that anyone's quantified it," said Lee Rainie, director of the project and a coauthor of the survey.

Rainie said most of those searching for health information online were seeking material for someone else.

Of those surveyed, 92% said their online search was useful and 81% said they learned something new.

About 47% of those seeking help for themselves said the answers influenced their decisions about treatment, and 36% of people looking on behalf of others said the same.

But while several health-centric Web services--such as WebMD and emerged to provide answers to health questions, Rainie said most of the people surveyed had a "scattershot searching activity" that brought them to many sites.

"The vast majority of people are doing health searches on their own," without help from advertisements, doctors, friends or anyone else, Rainie said. "They're going to search engines and just typing in words."

Rainie said information seekers most liked sites with broad search engines.

Many respondents were hesitant about using credit cards online and worried about what others could do with their private medical information.

"Clearly, health material is some of the most precious and sensitive stuff that people want to keep private," Rainie said. "They express a generalized concern about Internet companies tracking their movements and then passing on the data."

About 69% of Internet users questioned said they are "very concerned" that a Web site might sell or give away information about their online activities, and 81% said they want to have the right to sue if a Web company violates its privacy policy.

The survey also found that 86% of health seekers are concerned about getting unreliable health information. Still, 64% of the respondents said they had never heard about the Web sites they ended up consulting before they began their search.

Rainie said these people usually balance out that fear by going to multiple sites to double-check advice.

"If anything, the medical establishment has to be sensitive to the idea that people are in an action-oriented frame of mind," he said. "What they would really like is to have doctors and other health providers help them through this search."

Roelands felt the same way when she looked for answers.

"If I got a book, I would have believed the book. You tend to believe things that are in print," she said. "I suspect that WebMD and those sites take the most conservative possible approach. But that approach isn't necessarily the right approach."

The telephone survey of 12,751 adults, including 6,413 Internet users, was conducted between March 1 and Aug. 20. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Los Angeles Times Articles