Consumer Interest In Health Information Wanes

Increased broadband access hasn't translated into many more people seeking medical information online.
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Perhaps reflecting a lack of clarity or disappointment with previous attempts to find what they're looking for, consumers seem to be losing their enthusiasm for seeking out health information, a new report suggests.

According to research by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC), half of all U.S. adults in 2010 looked for information about personal health issues from sources other than their doctor within the previous 12 months. That is down from 55.5% in 2007, but still higher than the 38.8% recorded in a 2001 survey, the Washington-based, nonpartisan research organization reported.

Not surprisingly, there was a sharp dropoff in the number of people reading print media for health information. Just 18.2% said they consulted books, magazines, or newspapers to answer their health questions in 2010, down from nearly 33% in 2007. Fewer consumers turned to friends and relatives or to TV and radio for health information, too.

The degree of the decline in use of print media was "striking," according to the report, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Only the Internet showed an increase between the 2007 and 2010 surveys, but not by much. In the latest poll, 32.6% said they looked online for information about their health concerns, compared to 31.1% three years earlier. The percentage of people consulting the Internet for health information had nearly doubled from 2001 to 2007.

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"We didn't expect it to keep growing as fast as it did earlier in the decade," HSC researcher Ha Tu told InformationWeek Healthcare. The extent of the slowdown was surprising, though. Citing data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, HSC noted that 66% of U.S. households had broadband Internet access at the end of the study period, up from 47% in 2007, so it would have made sense for more people to consult online sources of health information.

However, Tu surmised that information may be less trustworthy than it once was or perhaps harder to digest, since health and medical websites can be complex and difficult to understand. She noted that MedlinePlus, a consumer health site from the National Library of Medicine, might fit this description.

"You need pretty high baseline levels of health literacy to make good use of resources like that," Tu said. Indeed, the HSC research found exactly that. "Historically, a consumer's education level has stood out as the factor most strongly associated with information seeking, and that remains true today. Information seeking rises sharply as the level of education increases," the report said. "Across all individual characteristics, education level remained the factor most strongly associated with consumers' inclination to seek health information."

Tu also noted that there has been a lot of conflicting healthcare information in the public domain, such as whether menopausal women should get hormone replacement therapy. HRT was the norm for years, until a 2002 study showed that the treatment actually could increase the risk of heart disease and cancer. Now, according to WebMD, hormone replacement therapy may be regaining favor. "Even the most informed healthcare consumer might say this is a mess," Tu said.

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