Despite better Internet access, web searches for health information plateauing

The percentage of Americans seeking health information from sources other than their physician fell to 50 percent in 2010 from 56 percent in 2007, according to a new study by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

The change was associated with a sharp drop in information sought in books, newspapers and magazines, which have been on the decline in recent years. Only 18 percent of the respondents looked for health information in print media, down from 35 percent three years earlier.

The percentage of respondents who searched for health information on the Internet rose only slightly, from 31 to 33 percent. During the same period, the portion of U.S. households with high-speed Internet access jumped from 47 to 66 percent. This is especially surprising in light of earlier surveys showing that upwards of 80 percent of consumers with web access performed health information searches on the Internet.

The survey's results did not explain why more consumers are not going on the web to answer their health-related questions. But the researchers did find that the decline in health information searches was most pronounced among older Americans, people with chronic conditions, and people with lower-education levels.

Ha Tu, one of the study's authors, told InformationWeek Healthcare that the difficulty of understanding much of the health information on the Internet--such as that purveyed by MedlinePlus--might be correlated with the plateauing of health-related web searches. That jibes with earlier research showing that at least 90 million U.S. adults have low health literacy.

According to an HSC news release, information seeking has risen sharply as the level of education has increased. "Once other personal characteristics are accounted for, people with a graduate education are twice as likely as those with no high school diploma to seek health information (67 percent vs. 33 percent)--a disparity that has grown since 2007," the study's researchers said.  "The gap between the most- and least-educated groups is even wider for Internet use (52 percent vs. 11 percent)."

HSC pulled the data from its 2010 Health Tracking Household survey, which has information on a national representative sample of 17,000 people. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the poll.

For more information:
- see the HSC press release
- read the study
- check out the InformationWeek Healthcare article