Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Report: The Social Life of Health Information

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Susannah Fox, Associate Director at Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has published a new report "The Social Life of Health Information, 2011," which is an update on her excellent "The Social Life of Health Information, 2009." This latest report is even better and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of healthcare and technology. This new report posits that online conversation about health is being driven forward by two forces: 1) the availability of social tools and 2) the motivation, especially among people living with chronic conditions, to connect with each other.

Susannah is the former editor of the website for U.S. News & World Report, winner of the 2001 National Magazine Award for General Excellence in New Media. She has also worked as a researcher for RealNetworks and for The Harwood Group. Her research is consistently wonderful and I also encourage all of you to immediately follow her on Twitter @SusannahFox ~ I promise you won't be disappointed. Her tweets and blog posts along with her research are a national treasure.
One of the best summaries of Fox's research can be found in the video when Susannah spoke in September 2010 at Mayo Transform 2010 : Thinking Differently About Health Care:



This new report shows that doctors, nurses, and other health professionals continue to be the first choice for most people with health concerns, but online resources, including advice from peers, are a significant and growing source of health information. One interesting new data point this survey collects for the first time is that 25% of internet users have watched an online video about health or medical issues. And the statistics for Internet users with one or more chronic conditions are even higher.

The report notes that 1 in 4 Internet users (1 in 5 adults) is a self-tracker:
Carol Torgan, a health science strategist, points out that anyone who makes note of their blood pressure, weight, or menstrual cycle could be categorized as a "self-tracker." Add an online component, and you have the ingredients for a social health application or an electronic health record. Our survey finds that 15% of internet users have tracked their weight, diet, or exercise routine online. In addition, 17% of internet users have tracked any other health indicators or symptoms online. Fully 27% of adult internet users say yes to either question.
In the earlier published report "Health Topics" it was revealed that fully 80% of Internet users reported looking online for health information. This can be broken down into the following topics:
There is a much larger number of users on the Internet since the last report, but the percentage of those accessing health information online is also growing. And the typical search for health information online is on behalf of someone else so the reach is even further extended. The report states:
Half of internet users (48%) who go online for health information say their last search was on behalf of another person, 36% say their last search was on behalf of themselves, and 11% say it was both for themselves and someone else. Thus, while eight in ten internet users go online for health information, the impact of their inquiries may be even broader. And while some groups, such as the chronically ill and those living with disability, are less likely to be online and searching for health information, it does not mean that this information does not reach them through a surrogate of some kind.
Social network sites are popular, but used only sparingly for health updates and queries. But it is interesting to note that people caring for loved ones are more likely than other adults to use social network sites to gather and share health information and support. Also people living with one or more chronic conditions and those living with disability are significantly more likely than other social network site users to gather health information. Social network sites lend themselves well to building community, so I expect we will see this type of trending continue.

Mobile is becoming another area with significant increase in activity. Looking just at the 85% of adults who own a cell phone, 9% say they have software applications or "apps" on their phones that help them track or manage their health. But there is a large gap between rural users at 4% and urban users at 12%. There are also disparities in mobile use of healthcare apps based on race, age and education.

But even with these increases in mobile and online access to health information most people still turn to a professional, friend or family member when they have a health question. The majority of these interactions happen offline: just 5% of adults say they received online information, care, or support from a health professional, 13% say they had online contact with friends and family, and 5% say they interacted online with fellow patients. But people turn to different sources for different kinds of information. As the chart below shows, when seeking emotional support in dealing with a health issue fellow patients, friends, and family win by a landslide.


The Internet is a very powerful tool and it is becoming even more useful in healthcare. Whether searching for a quick answer, taking a deeper dive into research, or joining a community of patients for support and to share information, the Internet will continue to be a growing part of the healthcare landscape.


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