Pew’s New Data and What it Means for the Future of Health Info

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Healthcare Insights, Social Media Insights & Trends on May 12, 2011

Last night, at midnight, the Pew Internet Project dropped their latest opus: “The Social Life of Health Information, 2011.” The initial headlines from this study will probably focus on the top-line numbers: about 80 percent of online Americans looked online for health information in 2010, up from just 61 percent 2 years prior. And health information on social networks is exploding even more dramatically: 62 percent of “e-patients” use social networking sites, up from 39 percent in 2009.

But those stats are increasingly unhelpful. The growth in online access and the skyrocketing rates of social media adoption is almost a given. The big question isn’t whether there is searching going on. It’s what people are doing with that information: is this enriching relationships with physicians? Leading to an explosion in self-care? Shopping smarter for health care services? Building patient-to-patient networks?

The answer to all of these questions seems to be “maybe”:

  • Is online information enriching relationships with physicians? When an accurate diagnosis is needed, people still turn to doctors — not fellow patients, friends or family — almost 20 times more often. At the same time, more than half of online adults have looked online for information about treatments and procedures, suggesting that online information is supplementing, not replacing, direct interaction with health care providers.
  • Is online information leading to an explosion in self-care? Nearly one in three surveyed knows someone helped by information from the Internet. But without knowing exactly what these people were helped with, it’s tough to quantify the extent or importance of self-care. I have no problem Googling stretches for my various small aches and pains; when I tore my hamstring so badly I had to walk backwards for three days, I was in the doctor’s office immediately.
  • Are Americans shopping smarter for health care services? The survey found that 16 percent had looked for online reviews of doctors, 15 percent had looked for online information on hospitals. This number is actually *down* from the 2009 report. At a time when one solution to our health care crisis is smarter patient choices around selecting services, it’s worth noting the small number of patients doing this right now.
  • Are patients connecting to each other more (and garnering benefit from that interaction)? I’ve staked my claim that this is one of the trends that will influence the future of medicine, and Pew emphasized the point. But let’s be clear — and the numbers bear this out — this is not about Facebook, which, despite the huge user base of patients, is not where people go to share health information.

There are two takeaways here for communicators. The first is that the real action isn’t taking place online alone, in a vacuum. It’s where online and offline collide: where info from doctors is checked on the Internet (and vice versa). More on that next week.

The second is a reiteration of my earlier point that peer-to-peer sharing is — as Pew put it — “the leading edge of health care.” Figuring out where this (currently) minority group engages online will give communicators an early glimpse of what the future looks like.

Congrats to Susannah Fox and her staff for another insightful look at the online health landscape.

[For more looks at the data, check out:

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. wellness digest—week of may 9 — free-range communication linked to this post on May 16, 2011

    […] 2. pew’s new data and what it means for the future of health info […]

  2. Docs’ Use of Tech is a Vaccine Against ‘Disenchantment’ | Common Sense linked to this post on May 26, 2011

    […] weeks ago, I wrote that the key to understanding the Pew Internet report on patient use of online health info […]

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