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Survey data is a snapshot of a population, a moment captured in numbers, like vital signs: height, weight, temperature, blood pressure, etc. People build trend lines and watch for changes, shifting strategies as they make educated guesses about what’s going on. What’s holding steady? What’s spiking? What’s on the decline?

Just as a thermometer makes no judgment, the Pew Research Center provides data about the changing world around us. We don’t advocate for outcomes or recommend policies. Rather, we provide an updated record so that others can make those pronouncements and recommendations based on facts.

The latest in our health research series is being released today. Health Online 2013 finds that internet access and interest in online health resources are holding steady in the U.S. For a quick overview, read on…

What is new?

1 in 3 U.S. adults use the internet to diagnose themselves or someone else – and a clinician is more likely than not to confirm their suspicions. This is the first time we – or anyone else – has measured this in a straightforward, national survey question.

1 in 4 people looking online for health info have hit a pay wall. This is the first data I know of that begins to answer the important question: what is the public impact of closed-access journals?

We added three new health topics:

  • 11% of internet users have looked online for information about how to control their health care costs.
  • 14% of internet users have looked online for information about caring for an aging relative or friend.
  • 16% of internet users have looked online for information about a drug they saw advertised.

(A full list of all the health topics we’ve included, 2002-10, is available here.)

What has changed?

The percentage of people who have consulted online reviews of drugs and medical treatments dropped (and I don’t know why — do you have a theory? Please post a comment.)

Reviews and rankings online, 2010-2012

Related: why aren’t health care review sites catching on? Pew Internet has tracked a boom in consumer reviews of other services and products — why not health care?

What to keep an eye on?

One of my favorite survey questions is asked of all adults and attempts to capture a broad portrait of health care resources that someone might tap into when they’re sick.

The last time you had a health issue, did you get information, care, or support from...

It’s a useful question for keeping online resources in perspective. I think it’s also going to prove useful in the coming years as the landscape shifts and people have more opportunities to connect with clinicians online. How fast will that  “Yes, online” group grow? Or will care always be hands-on at its core — and therefore we should see growth in the “Yes, both” category?

Speaking of keeping things in perspective, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that there are pockets of people who remain offline. Internet access drives information access.

Looking online for health information: demographics

Here’s a table from the Appendix that digs even deeper:

Health topics, by education

In other words, 64% of college educated adults in the U.S. have researched a specific disease online, compared with just 16% of U.S. adults who have not completed high school.

These are just a few highlights — please read the report, ask questions, and tell us what you think:  How’s the patient doing, based on this new set of vital signs? What do you prescribe?



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