Trend for US patients to seek health information from media and internet is stalling

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 29 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7738
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. 1Washington, DC

Patients in the United States were less likely to seek health information from sources other than their doctor in 2010 than in 2007, concludes a new survey.

Only half (50%) of the 17 000 people who participated in the telephone survey said they had sought out such information over the past 12 months, down from 56% in 2007, says the report of the survey, released on 23 November by the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington, DC.

The 2007 sample had looked to the internet (31%), print media such as books, magazines, and newspapers (33%), and friends and relatives (31%) in roughly similar proportions for their information. Radio and television were another important choice (16%). Respondents could name multiple sources.

But by 2010 the sources of health information had changed considerably. Use of print media had fallen by nearly half, to 18%, and radio and television by a third, to 10%. Reliance on friends and relatives declined modestly (29%), while use of the internet edged upward (33%).

Level of education was the largest single predictor of who sought out health information. People with a graduate degree were twice as likely as those who had not completed high school to seek health related information (67% versus 33%). The gap was wider still for the use of the internet as a health resource (52% versus 11%). Although there were modest differences in patterns along ethnic lines, these largely disappeared when level of education was taken into account.

People aged 65 or older were least likely to seek health information, despite the fact that they are disproportionately larger consumers of health services. They also showed the largest decline in use of print media (from 35% to 18%). Their use of the internet rose rapidly (from 17% to 24%) but from a low starting point, and they still lag behind other age groups in their online presence, though the gap has narrowed.

These data indicate, write the authors, that “consumers with more education may be better equipped, first, to locate useful information sources, and then to apply stronger health literacy skills to reap greater benefit from those information sources.”

Part of the overall decline in seeking health information from non-medical sources might be attributed to the poor economy and to deferment of medical care. The number of visits to doctors fell by 4% from 2001 to 2010. The report attributes the decline to greater unemployment and thus the loss of job based health insurance and also to higher user copayments for doctors’ visits and prescriptions.

The authors also suggested that consumers’ past use of health information might be a factor. Once people with a chronic condition have achieved a baseline understanding of their condition and its treatment, they may feel less of a need to continuously search out new information.

Additionally, “the very abundance of information sources available about health—particularly on the Internet—may well be contributing to information overload, anxiety, and confusion by some consumers,” they wrote.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7738


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