Last month, Susannah Fox and the brilliant folks at the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the California Healthcare Foundation put out a report that quantified with great depth how people use the Internet to gain health information, revealing that nearly one in five patients looked online for peers with similar health concerns. It was a tour de force, not the least of which was because a large component of the research looked at the specific needs involved in rare diseases, a finding that was widely discussed in the press.
Less heralded — but perhaps more important — was a deep division in where people looked for certain kinds of health information. For support and basic advice on day-to-day living, most people turned to their peers, demonstrating the triumph of the web as an extended support network. But clinical information still came — in a huge percentage of cases — from a patient’s physician, not Dr. Google.
When patients wanted a diagnosis, they turned to health care providers 18 times more often than they turned to their peers. For prescription drug information, providers beat out friends, families and fellow patients 81 percent to 9 percent. For emotional support, on the other hand, peers were twice as likely to provide information on emotional support. And in moments of need, offline information-seeking continues to dominate.
The Pew research lays bare a reality that too often gets forgotten in our enthusiasm for technology, especially in communications. There is a sense that society’s gatekeepers and middlemen are being picked off, one by one. Travelocity can stand in for travel agents. The algorithm-derived Google News feed seeks to mimic newspaper editors. Yelp replaces food critics. As — as my colleague Bob Pearson points out in his new book, Pre-Commerce — ratings sites and social media others make advice-dispensing salespeople disposable.
But not in health. As rich as the information is on the web, we’re still turning to doctors when the medical issues turn complex. The implications for communicators are clear. First, we need to understand exactly what people are looking for online (support, advice, diagnoses) and tailor online offering to those needs. And second, we need to understand that education patients still means educating health care providers (more on that next week).
Fox has said the Pew report was 5 years in the making, and it will no doubt be seen as a definitive work in online health. And those it clearly paints a picture of patients and caregivers with increasing digital savvy, it also serves as a reminder that doctors remain central to information seeking. Communicators who ignore that group do so at their peril.