The internet revolutionized the way we search for information as well as how we conduct business in our everyday lives. Everything can be purchased online: cars, clothes, groceries. vacation packages, just about anything. Most people now research products before committing to them, and that now includes healthcare. It is estimated that 87% of adults in the US use the internet. Approximately 72% of internet users seek health information online

So, where do patients search for online healthcare information?

  • Nearly 77% of those seeking online health information began their quest with a search engine such as yahoo, google, etc.
  • Approximately 13% began their search on a site that specializes in health information, such as WebMD.
  • Only 1% started their search on a social network site such as Facebook.
  • According to a Pew research survey,  63% of online health seekers were looking for information about specific diseases or medical problems.
  • According to the same survey, 47% were looking for information about a specific treatment or medical procedure.  Additionally, 44% searched diet information and 36% were looking for information about exercise and fitness.

There are a multitude of sites that discuss healthcare information. Just because a site brands themselves as healthcare experts doesn’t mean that they actually are. Patients need to be educated consumers but this knowledge must be correct. In the healthcare space, wrong information can be quite dangerous. Sites that label themselves as offering medical information need to stay consistent with evidence-based medicine. Many times, this may not be clear to patients. And medical experts should be involved in the site to keep it aligned to safe medical practices. If that is missing for a site, that site should be avoided.

Many hospitals now have an online presence and offer health related information.  While these may be great sources of medical information, I have found many of them not to be updated as often as other sites. Also, when they start offering a new service, a multitude of new “information” is poured out about that new procedure.

Patients don’t always share with their doctor what information they discovered online.In fact, according to a study conducted by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), 59% of those seeking out health information online did not discuss it with their physicians. Those who did share the information with their doctors rated the information they found online higher than those who did not share. Another 11% reported that they used the online health information in place of seeing their doctors.

Several studies and surveys indicate that women tend to search health information more frequently than men. Those doing online searches also tended to have higher socioeconomic and educational levels. Many people conducting these searches are often doing it on behalf of another person rather than themselves, such as a spouse, child, etc. It is interesting to note that those sites that asked for payment to access their information found very few people willing to pay for it.

Healthcare providers need to know that our patients are learning health care information on the internet. And that is a good thing. Medical knowledge is expanding at the rate of a big bang explosion and the more knowledge patients possess, the easier it is to discuss their medical conditions with them. But, we need sites that cater to true medical facts and not self-promotion. If we want patients to be empowered, we must make sites that are patient-centric. And, there must be some type of evaluation measures to guide patients to those sites that are committed to their medical well-being.

© 2016, Linda Girgis MD. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Where Do Patients Go for their Online Health Information

  1. Hi Dr Linda
    This is an interesting topic and I’d love to quote you but can’t do so if I can’t check your sources…
    I know this is a blog but I really think you should reference all your sources like in a medical article (i.e. Vancouver)

    Best regards, a fellow family doctor

    1. Thanks for your input! Yes, these should be referenced and I will go back and add them as soon as I am able. I actually had them is as hyperlinks but for some reason, these links did not appear.

  2. I really like this posting on where patients look for health care information. As a health sciences librarian I find my self giving the same information to many others, often with little uptake. I would suggest that you share reliable websites with your colleagues and patients. MedlinePlus is certainly a wonderful resource, with high quality, refereed information. Other high quality websites and guidelines on how to evaluate health information can be found on the website of the Medical Library Association (http://www.mlanet.org/p/cm/ld/fid=398) If you would like further information, please contact me. Thanks!

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