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Study: Chronic Condition Patients are Going Online for Health Information

December 2, 2013
by Rajiv Leventhal
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U.S. adults living with chronic conditions are increasingly looking online for health information, but the majority of them are still fact-checking that information with a medical professional, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center and the California HealthCare Foundation.

The Pew Research Center’s analysis indicates a “diagnosis difference” that is tied to several aspects of healthcare and technology use. For example, holding other variables constant (including age, income, education, ethnicity, and overall health status), the fact that someone has a chronic condition is independently associated with being offline.

The diagnosis difference cuts another way, too. This study provides evidence that many people with serious health concerns take their health decisions seriously—and are seriously social about gathering and sharing information, both online and offline.

The study of 3,104 U.S. adults found that internet users living with one or more conditions are more likely than other online adults to:

  • Gather information online about medical problems, treatments, and drugs.
  • Consult online reviews about drugs and other treatments.
  • Read or watch something online about someone else’s personal health experience.

Thirty-one percent of U.S. adults living with chronic conditions say they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have. They are more likely than other “online diagnosers” to talk with a clinician about what they find:

  • Sixty percent of online diagnosers living with chronic conditions say they talked with a medical professional about the information they found online, compared with 48 percent of online diagnosers who report no conditions.
  • About half of online diagnosers living with chronic conditions say that a clinician confirmed their suspicions, either completely or in part. About one in five say that a clinician offered a different opinion.

Trackers living with chronic conditions are also more likely than others to take formal notes, to track on a regular basis, and to share their notes with other people, particularly clinicians. Fully 72 percent of trackers living with chronic conditions say that keeping notes of any kind has had an impact on their health routine or the way they care for someone else, compared with 55 percent of trackers who report no conditions.

“Our research makes it clear that when the chips are down, people are most likely to get advice from a clinician, but online resources are a significant supplement,” Susannah Fox, lead author of the study and an associate director at the Pew Research Center, said in a statement. “Just as significantly, once people begin learning from others online about how to cope with their illnesses, they join the conversation and also share what they know.”

According to research, 45 percent of U.S. adults report that they live with one or more chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, lung conditions, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. They are more likely than other adults to be older, to have faced a medical emergency in the past year, and, as other studies have shown, to contribute to the explosion of healthcare costs in the U.S.

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