Everyone knows that people commonly use the internet for health information. “Commonly” means almost half (45.6%) of adults over 18 who were interviewed by the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) during the first 9 months of 2009. The estimate is made from household interviews of a national sample of adults who don’t live in institutions, like a nursing home, school or prison (euphemistically called a correctional facility). The question asked by the NHIS was: “Did you look up health information on the Internet in the past 12 months?”
The percentage by age group is fairly even, except for the oldest (65+, 23%), but within each age group women consult the internet for health information more frequently than men and the highest age specific percentage was the 25 – 34 age group. We don’t know why the respondents consulted the internet, but a plausible explanation for this pattern is that it is used by young parents worried or curious about the health of their children. Concern for children is probably hard wired into our brains. If we didn’t have it, we might not have survived as a species. Here’s the breakdown, via CDC’s MMWR QuickStats:
Source: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, CDC
Is the use of the internet for health information a good thing or a bad thing? Probably some of each, but it seems to me it is on balance much more of a good thing than a bad one. It is common to wring our hands over the amount of misinformation on the internet and dangerous memes about health certainly can circulate much faster and reach more people. But it’s not as if people would be going to their doctors for advice or the library for information if it weren’t for the internet.
Main stream media outlets carry general health news, often promoted by press releases, and it is usually superficial, uninformative and sometimes misleading. Those traditional sources are not now, nor have they ever been, a reliable source of information about health. What the internet provides, on demand, is specific answers to specific questions. Easy access through search queries and fast availability almost certainly has increased health literacy, even if at the cost of some health lunacy as collateral damage. It’s much easier to remember information with personal salience than the bland buzz of background news stories. Most of the health information linked on high traffic sites is conventional and, if addressing a specific issue, usually helpful. Yes, you can find steaming piles of crap about health on the internet. But in the pre-internet days people either went without any information at all or got it from often ignorant or misinformed friends, family or colleagues at work.
Bottom line: health advocates should be celebrating the internet. It’s made unprecedented amounts of reliable health information available to unprecedented numbers of people. You heard it here. On the internet.