Increased Internet Use for Health Information

Abstract & Commentary

By Mary Elina Ferris, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, University of Southern California. Dr. Ferris reports no financial relationship to this field of study.

Synopsis: A new national survey showed people of all ages increasingly using the Internet for initial health information, but physicians remain the most trusted source to validate their findings.

Source: Hesse B, et al. Trust and sources of health information: the impact of the Internet and its implications for health care providers: findings from the first Health Information National Trends Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:2618-2624.

The health information national trends survey has been established by the National Cancer Institute using telephone interviews, with plans to repeat biennially. This article reports the initial findings from October 2002 to April 2003. A total of 6369 persons were included in the final sample with methods used to ensure proportional representation of age, sex, race/ethnicity, education level, and household income.

Overall use of the Internet was 63.7%, generally more common among persons younger than 65 years, women, those who were white or Asian, and who had higher levels of education and income. For persons older than age 65, 48.2% used the Internet. The difference between men and women of all ages was 69.8% women and 57.5% men. Race/ethnicity divisions varied from 65.2% for whites and 56.5% for Hispanics. The majority (86.8%) were using the Internet from home.

Respondents expressed a high level of trust for information obtained from physicians, with 49.5% reporting a desire to ask their physicians first for health information, but only 10.9% reported actually doing it. Overall, 48.6% went to Internet first for health information. Persons 18-34 years old were 9 times more likely to access the Internet before physician contact (61.1% vs 7.1%). For ages older than 65 years, there was a more equal split with 21.4% actually using the Internet first vs 20.9% contacting their physicians first.


The authors describe these findings as a "tectonic shift" in the ways our patients access health information, and indeed past surveys have shown a rapidly increasing use of the Internet: 22% in 1997, 44% in 2000, up to 63% recently. They point out that the increasing availability of high-speed connections (33% in 2003, now estimated at 50%) leads to even more frequent use of the Internet to quickly locate answers to their enquiries.

A recent study in a family medicine clinic supports these conclusions, with 65% of 1300 patients surveyed reporting access to the Internet.1 Interestingly, a survey of 92 of their physicians underestimated this use; the majority thought less than half of patients were using the Internet. The top 4 topics for patients were diseases, medications, nutrition, and exercise.

It appears that the patient visiting us with their computer printout is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, although a significant group still do not use the Internet, particularly the elderly. The challenge for us will be to steer patients to reliable websites for information, but fortunately the survey showed they continue to trust our knowledge as the final authority.


1. Schwartz KL, et al. Family medicine patients' use of the Internet for health information: a MetroNet study. J Am Board Fam Med. 2006;19:39-45.