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No face time with docs? Patients go elsewhere
Half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say the information has improved the way they take care of themselves, and many report that on-line information has directly affected their decisions about how to treat illness and deal with their doctors, says a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington, DC.
These are some of the key findings of several surveys taken by the Pew Internet Project and released in the report, "The on-line health care revolution: How the Web helps Americans take better care of themselves." The report found that 52 million American adults have sought health and medical information on the Web. These Americans are labeled "health seekers." A majority of them go on-line at least once a month to get health information, the report says.
"The emergence of this group — the health seekers — illustrates perhaps the most profound and dramatic impact the Internet is having on Americans," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. "In an era when the facetime a patient gets with a doctor during an average appointment has dipped below 15 minutes, many are turning to the Web get the information they crave so that they can make decisions about how to care for themselves and their loved ones."
One survey in the study asked Internet users to describe the most recent time they had gone on-line for health information. About 47% of the people who were seeking health information for themselves say the on-line material influenced their decisions about treatment and care, and 36% of those seeking information on behalf of others say it influenced their decisions.
These Internet users say the information drawn from the Web helped them decide how to treat an illness, prepped them to ask more questions of their doctors or seek second opinions, and helped them decide whether to go to the doctor.
They worry about privacy, too
Even though they indicate a growing reliance on the Internet for health information, most Internet users are worried about their on-line privacy, especially when it comes to the sensitive subject of their medical information. In the study, 89% of health seekers say they are worried that Internet companies will collect and share data about the Web sites they visited; 85% say they fear that insurance companies might change their coverage after finding out what on-line information they accessed; and 52% fret that their employers might learn what kind of medical material they accessed.
Most report that the last time they went hunting on-line for health information they got the facts they needed. But they relied on Internet searches without the benefit of professional advice and often visited Web sites new to them before they began the search.
"This should be a wake-up call to medical professionals: Patients are action-oriented when they go on-line for health information, and they will search for it any way they can," says Susannah Fox, director of research at the Pew Internet Project and the principal author of this study. "[Patients] would probably like help from their doctors in pointing them to the best places for these Internet searches, and they really want doctors to answer the questions that emerge during that research about how to treat the sick."
Some other key findings from the Pew Internet Project report include:
• Twenty-six percent of health seekers have gone on-line to get information about mental illness, and 16% of health seekers have used the Internet to get information on a sensitive health subject that is hard to discuss.
• Very few health seekers use the Internet to interact with their doctors (only 9% have exchanged e-mails with them). Few health seekers have purchased medicine or vitamins, and few have consulted on-line doctors.
• Asked about their most recent search for health information, 54% of health seekers said they were looking on behalf of someone else; 43% were looking for themselves.
• Sixty-three percent of health seekers oppose the idea of keeping medical records on-line, even at a secure, password-protected site, because they fear other people will see those records.
• Eighty-one percent of health seekers think people should be able to sue a health or medical organization if it gives away information about its customers after saying it would not.
Information about the health seekers habits came from surveys conducted last March 1 to Aug. 20. Those surveys interviewed 12,751 adults age 18 and over, 6,413 of them being Internet users. Findings about privacy came from questions asked in a survey in July and August of 2,109 persons, some 1,101 of whom were Internet users. Finally, a special survey of 521 health seekers was conducted in August, with a special focus on the search they conducted during the last time they went on-line for health information.