More than a third of Americans go online to diagnose symptoms, but the Internet hasn't usurped the role of the general practitioner in patient care, says Pew study.
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About 35% of U.S. adults have gone online in the past year to diagnose their own or another person's medical condition, according to the Health Online 2013 report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Nevertheless, there's no evidence that consumers are using Internet sites to diagnose themselves instead of consulting physicians, said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet Project, in an interview with InformationWeek Healthcare.
Overall, the study found, 81% of American adults had used the Internet, and 72% of Internet users had sought health information online in the previous 12 months. Fifty-nine percent of online health information seekers tried to identify what kind of medical condition they had.
Women outnumbered men within this group, and people who were young, white, high-income and highly educated were more likely than others to diagnose themselves or others on the Web, the survey found.
Of the online diagnosers, 46% said that the condition they tried to diagnose needed the attention of a doctor, 38% said it could be taken care of at home, and 11% said it was either both or in between.
Fifty-three percent of online diagnosers said they'd talked with a medical professional about what they'd found online. Forty-one percent said that a clinician had confirmed their suspicions, and another 2% said that a clinician had partially confirmed them. According to 18% of these people, a medical professional did not agree or offered a different opinion about the condition, and 1% said the clinician could not diagnose it. The rest did not visit a medical professional.
The likelihood of a consumer going online to diagnose a condition fell significantly with age: As a percentage of all U.S. adults, only 29% in the 50-64 age group and 13% in the 65+ age group did so. However, among the 55% of Internet users who sought information about a specific disease or medical problem -- not necessarily for diagnostic reasons -- the age difference was much lower, with 43% of seniors going online for this purpose.
"Internet access drives information access," Fox said, noting that the baby boomers now moving into the ranks of seniors "are swelling the ranks of the Internet users. If you look at the group of people 72 and older, Internet use drops precipitously."
For the first time, the Pew survey compared the percentage of insured people to the percentage of uninsured people who went online to look up health information. They found a difference between the percentages of people trying to diagnose an illness online, versus the percentages looking up health information in general.
"There is no statistically significant difference between those who have health insurance and those who do not when it comes to using the Internet to figure out an illness," the report found.
However, 75% of insured Internet users sought any kind of health information online, compared to 59% of uninsured Internet users. Even more striking, 60% of the insured looked up information about medical conditions, vs. 35% of the uninsured.
Fox speculated that insured people are more connected to the healthcare system than the uninsured and therefore more likely to look up health information online. But she did not draw any conclusion from the fact that just as many uninsured as insured people try to diagnose diseases on the Web, yet fewer of the uninsured visit physicians. Other factors besides insurance may be involved, she said. For example, some people may be using websites to look up health problems that don't require a doctor's attention.
The Pew survey also found that when people did consult a physician, only 1% did so online and 8% did so both online and offline. In contrast, Manhattan Research recently reported that 39% of physicians said they e-mailed with patients. Fox said it's possible that some doctors may go online with a few of their patients and that some practices may just have patients fill out forms online. But the bottom line is that "a very small group of consumers said that when they had a health issue, they could contact their doctor online," she said.
On another front, the Pew report noted that 20% of Internet users had consulted online reviews of particular drugs or medical treatments, doctors, hospitals or other providers. And just 3‐4% of Internet users had posted online reviews of healthcare services or providers.
Fox wasn't sure why so many fewer people use or post healthcare reviews than use or post them in other fields such as travel, hospitality and consumer products. "But it's important for people to understand that there are just a few voices that are amplified [in reviews]. That's a challenge for consumers, doctors and hospitals."
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