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Pew study: More patients turning to the Web

Report documents a growing "e-patient" phenomenon, with the number of Americans looking online for health information doubling since 2000.

online health

Rachael was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. After surgery and beginning the onslaught of radiation therapy, she went online to search for information--"lurking," she calls it. What she found was much more than scientific information about her disease.

"Here was a community of ladies who had been there, done that," she said. "A real treat when you are overwhelmed and stressed to your limits."

Now, six years later, Rachael (who for purposes of anonymity prefers not to use her last name) is an active member of health information site WebMD. She checks in several times throughout the day and has written literally thousands of posts on medical information, personal experiences, or simple consolatory messages.

She's also just one the 61 percent of American adults who look online for medical advice and information, according to "The Social Life of Health Information," a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and the California HealthCare Foundation.

This report shows that more Americans are reading commentaries about medical issues, consulting rankings or reviews of doctors, or listening to health-related podcasts.

A smaller group of so-called e-patients, 20 percent, actively post comments and reviews on different online list-servs, blogs, or message boards. Rachael, for example, fits into this group. "We are beginning to see e-patients turning to interactive features both to help them find information tailored to their needs and to post their own contributions," said Susannah Fox, co-author of the report and associate director of Pew's Internet & American Life Project.

"The early Internet provided e-patients online tools that enabled research. Now the mobile, social Internet enables connection and conversation."
--Sydney Jones, Pew Research Center

In 2000, 25 percent of American adults looked online for health information. Now, it's more than double and the majority are happy with the results they find, according to the report. Only a small portion of e-patients, 3 percent, say they or someone they know has been harmed by following medical advice found on the Internet.

It seems only natural that more people are turning to the Internet for health information because the entire medical landscape is also beginning to go digital. Hospitals and insurance companies, like Kaiser Permanente, are moving toward entirely paperless digital-only records, and in February, President Obama signed a stimulus bill that gives $19 billion to hospitals to improve their technology efforts.

Also, online health digitization goes hand-in-hand with social networking. Sydney Jones, co-author of the report and research assistant at the Pew Internet Project, points out that "the early Internet provided e-patients online tools that enabled research. Now the mobile, social Internet enables connection and conversation." These online conversations can be with other patients, doctors, pharmacists, and other health care providers.

Even though more Americans are using social networking or looking online for health-related information, the Internet still comes in third (tied with books) for sources that people turn to for assistance. According to the report, people are still going to doctors first and talking to friends or family members second.

"They treat the Internet as a supplement to traditional sources of information," said Fox, "using blogs, podcasts, and other online resources to deepen their understanding of a condition and sharpen their questions for a health professional."

In essence, this is why Rachael was drawn to her online community, she found an enhancement to the traditional information she was getting. "These individuals held out their hands to 'newbies,' gave all shoulders to cry on," she said. "Finding all the members not only receptive, but giving and caring kept me returning."