Long gone are the days of being dependent on your doctor for medical information. A new Pew internet study on ‘The Social Life of Health Information’ cites data that states that in 2000, 46% of American adults had access to the internet. Now, 61% of all American adults look for health information online. This fundamental shift in our habits has revolutionized access to health information. People with worrying or embarrassing symptoms now often turn to the plethora of medical advice sites before presenting their symptoms to a physician, if they do so at all. This has led to claims by many physicians that people are being misled or inaccurately trying to ‘self-diagnose’, especially those lacking adequate insurance coverage.
However, the evidence reported by the study does not support this, with 60% of those seeking health information online saying that they or someone they know has been helped by following medical advice found on the internet, and just 3% reporting a negative outcome. It also affects how patients manage their own healthcare: 53% say it led them to ask a doctor new questions, or to get a second opinion from another doctor, and 24% have consulted rankings of hospitals or doctors online.
The study also highlighted the increase in the percentage of people using the internet to look for information on exercise, diet, and other preventative health measures, citing an 88% increase since 2002. This is an unmistakable sign that people are becoming more engaged in looking after their own health and wellness, especially given the ever-rising cost of health insurance and uncertainty over healthcare reforms. Health tourism, the rapidly-growing practice of traveling abroad to receive healthcare, is one consequence of this – the industry has been growing rapidly and Deloitte predicts a 35% year-on-year increase in the future.
While 39% of those who use the internet for health purposes (‘e-patients’) use a social networking site like Facebook, of those, only a small portion have followed friends’ health updates or posted health-related comments online, perhaps due to privacy concerns. However, the study states that “it is clear that the pursuit of health information does not happen in a social vacuum.” Many people use social platforms as sources of news, utilizing them to get informed about advancements in research or new treatments through specialized support groups. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook frequently act as portals, drawing people to online communities focusing on conditions ranging from cancer to mental health disorders to diabetes, and other much rarer conditions where the person may never have met another sufferer otherwise.