Is Health a Click Away? Most Americans Find Medical Info Online

Eighty percent of all U.S. Internet users, or 59 percent of all American adults, look up health information online, according to a new report released today (May 12) by the Pew Research Center.

In addition, 34 percent of U.S. Internet users went online to read someone else's commentary or experience about a certain medical issue, and 25 percent of Internet users have gone online to watch a health-related video, according to the report, which includes responses from 3,001 adults obtained between August and September 2010.

The report also revealed that 18 percent of Internet users have gone online to find other people who have medical concerns similar to theirs, said study researcher Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which is part of the Pew Research Center.

However, social media does not seem to be a huge source of medical information, Fox said, as only 15 percent of social network users get medical information from a social networking site, such as Facebook.

The survey showed that people "are still using [social networking sites] more for socializing than for gathering health information," Fox told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The report also showed that only 4 percent of U.S. Internet users posted their own health experiences with a treatment online, and 4 percent of users posted a review of a doctor online. However, it's not surprising that far more people consume online information than provide information online, Fox said.

"And what I take from those trends is that it actually fits in also with something called the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule, where 80 percent of an audience is listening, and only 20 percent is talking," she said. "It's a good thing to be repeated here. It's a natural effect."

Power to the people

As long as people realize there is no substitute for a medical doctor , it's good to be proactive about using the Internet to learn about health, said Dr. John Spangler, professor of family medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, who was not involved with the study.

"But I would hasten to add that patients need to be careful about what sites they select," Spangler told MyHealthNewsDaily. "If you just type in 'diabetes,' you may get a site that pushes you off into some sort of snake oil."

But reputable organizations such as university websites or medical associations are great sources for health information, he said.

If the people in the report are visiting reputable websites, then the results are encouraging that people are being proactive about their health, Spangler said.

Keeping track of progress

The new report also showed that 27 percent of U.S. Internet users track their weight, diet or exercise regimens online.

Spangler said he has several patients who use these trackers at home, for whom they are very helpful.

"They monitor what you're doing regularly, and I think it's helpful to have some actual behavioral feedback that tells you what you've accomplished," Spangler said.

The trackers also help people to focus on realistic goals by monitoring personal progress, he said.

Pass it on: More than half of all Americans are turning to the Internet to get health information, but a doctor warns that they should remember to only get information from reputable sites.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @AmandaLChan.

Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.