The share of individuals turning to the Internet for health information grew less than 2 percentage points from 2007 to 2010, though residential access to high-speed Internet grew 19 percentage points during that time, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.
Decline seen in consumers seeking health info
Researchers from the Washington-based HSC, a nonpartisan policy research group, looked at telephone surveys of about 17,000 people in 2010, 18,000 in 2007 and 60,000 in 2001.
When patients aren't talking to their doctors, the Internet increasingly is their go-to source for healthcare information among media choices, the researchers found. But the small uptick in use of the Internet for finding health information didn't offset a decline in the use of other media for the same purpose: When looking at all media combined, significantly fewer people sought information about their health from these outside sources in 2010 than in 2007.
In each survey, individuals were asked this key question: "During the past 12 months, did you look for or get information about a personal health concern?" Survey respondents were then presented with a list of possible information sources, including the Internet; print publications such as books, magazines and newspapers; broadcast media, television and radio; friends and relatives; and other outlets.
In 2010, 50% of respondents sought healthcare information from these various sources, down from 55.5% in 2007 but up from 36.8% in 2001.
Much of the decline in media use for personal health research came at the expense of print media, down to 18.2% in 2010 from a category leading 32.9% in 2007.
The Internet was the only one of these five main information categories in which use rose continually, up to 32.6% in 2010 from 31.1% in 2007, and up substantially from 15.9% in 2001. According to other research, the HSC noted in an e-mailed news release about the study, only 47% of people in 2007 had residential high-speed Internet access. By 2010, that share had grown to 66%.
HSC senior health researcher Ha T. Tu speculated about the cause of the overall decline in health information-seeking.
"Demand for healthcare declined between 2007 and 2010—with physician visits falling by 4%—a trend largely attributed to the economic downturn," Tu said in the report. "Reduced demand for care, in turn, helped ease health system-related barriers to care, as significantly fewer people reported such problems as obtaining timely doctor appointments or getting through to a doctor's office by telephone."
According to Tu, this decline in system-related barriers to care may have reduced the need or motivation of respondents to find health information on their own. "At the same time, one would expect to see other consumers—those cutting back on healthcare because of cost concerns—increasing their health information-seeking as a substitute for obtaining information from clinicians," she wrote.
But another possible reason for the decline in health information-seeking, Tu said, may stem from individuals' "reactions to their previous experiences with health information."
"Many people searching for health information have reported frustrating or negative experiences," she wrote. "For example, the National Cancer Institute's Health Information National Trends Survey found that nearly half of those who had sought cancer-related information expressed frustration with the information search itself; nearly three in five expressed concerns about the quality of the information; and nearly two in five reported that the information they found was too hard to understand." One possible reaction to such frustrations is to stop seeking information, she said.
Also, individuals experiencing an "abundance of information sources" online may well be suffering from "information overload, anxiety and confusion," Tu said. This happens "when conflicting information is provided by different sources" and may lead some people to stop seeking health information altogether.
"It's hard to know if what we're seeing is just a blip or this is a beginning of a greater downward trend," she said. "If in (another) three years we see a grater downward trend that would be significant. But right now, it's substantial enough to raise some serious questions."
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