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Consumers and the Search for Health Information

By December 6, 2011Commentary

One key component of the movement to get greater consumer engagement in health is having patients gather and understand health information.  Due largely to the internet, finding information on health conditions, health care and providers is easier than it has ever been and most of the information is free.  The most recent survey on health information gathering by consumers from the Center for Studying Health System Change contains some rather disturbing data regarding health information-seeking.   (CSHSC Release)   The data is from a regular survey of American adults regarding their use of health information and was asked in regard to 2010 behavior.

About 50% of all adults reporting seeking information for a personal health concern in the prior 12 months, down from 56% in 2007, but still up from 38% in 2001.  In addition, about 40% said they looked for information on behalf of a relative or friend.  Of the three main sources for information, print materials like newspapers, the internet and other people, the use of print media fell from 33% of people to 18% while the use of internet and other people sources stayed steady.   This may be consistent with broader trends in less availability and use of print media.  It is also somewhat surprising that internet use did not grow more, since the growth in availability of high-speed internet access from 2007 to 2010 was quite substantial–from 47% of adults to 66%.

While the decline occurred in all demographic categories, it was greater among older people, those with chronic conditions and less-educated adults; all groups that are disproportionate health care users.  The more education a person has, the more likely they are to seek health information.  Women, young people and whites are more likely to seek information, as are those with more health problems.  Most consumers report a positive impact from the information they found, although better-educated adults report more of an impact, perhaps attributable to better ability to find and understand the data.  The decline may be due to getting more information from providers or from frustration with information found on earlier attempts.  Whatever the cause, it is surprising and probably not good for patient engagement.

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