The online health information divide

This post is first and foremost a thank-you note.

Thank you to everyone who posted a comment, emailed me, or tweeted a suggestion in response to my request for input last July: Crowdsourcing a Survey. Six new topics came directly from those conversations. Thank you to Veenu Aulakh and the California HealthCare Foundation who provided funding for the survey. Thank you to Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell, and Kathryn Zickuhr, my colleagues at the Pew Internet Project who helped mine and polish up the data for the final report: Health Topics.

Here is what we found: There is a health information divide. Pregnancy and childbirth seem to cut across it. Mobile may change it in the future. But for now, significant portions of the adult population do not have access to up-to-date information on drug recalls, food safety, or treatment options.The most likely groups to look online for health information include:

  • Adults who, in the past 12 months, have provided unpaid care to a parent, child, friend, or other loved one
  • Women
  • Whites
  • Adults between the ages of 18-49
  • Adults with at least some college education
  • Adults living in higher-income households

By contrast, fewer than half of adults in the following groups in the U.S. look online for health information:

  • African Americans
  • Latinos
  • Adults living with a disability
  • Adults age 65 and older
  • Adults with a high school education or less
  • Adults living in low-income households ($30,000 or less annual income)

Only 29% of adults age 65+ look online for health information (mostly because only 40% have access to the internet), compared with 58% of 50-64 year-olds, 66% of 30-49 year-olds, and 71% of 18-29 year-olds who look online for health information. Yes, the internet is an amazing resource, but for whom?  And whose voices are we not hearing from online?  The wisdom of our elders is not well represented.

Caregivers are a potential bridge to older adults: fully 70% gather health information online. And young people, Latinos, and African Americans are increasingly likely to use mobile devices to gather information, which could potentially shift the patterns among those groups when it comes to using health information resources.

Some health topics provide other clues about the road ahead.

Amy Romano was an eloquent and persuasive advocate for including a question about pregnancy and childbirth. One in five internet users has looked online for this type of information, but of course it is even more popular among younger adults and among women, and it cuts across all education levels.

Read what Amy has written about this opportunity:

What if we could help a large population of highly motivated, influential health care consumers become empowered, engaged, equipped, and enabled? And what if they could develop these skills while they were healthy – before they face life threatening illnesses or need to manage chronic conditions? What if transforming the way these consumers participated in their care could reduce the burden of one of the most costly conditions in our health care system and improve the health of millions of people each year?It’s all possible – if we make maternity care more participatory.

Again, thank you to everyone who contributed ideas. I am a better researcher because of my participation in these conversations. Please dig into the report and let me know what you think.

Susannah Fox is Associate Director, Digital Strategy at Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, and blogs at e-patients.net.

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  • Anonymous

    Wake us up when you have statistical evidence that the divide you write about leads to clinically important adverse outcomes.  Until then we can leave it in the Who Cares file.

  • Jenny Reiswig

    Another thing you can recommend to your patients who don’t have Internet: their public library. In addition to public-use computers and helpful staff, there is still good health information out there in these quaint old information packaging units they call “books.”  At the public library they you get to take those home for free and all they ask is that you bring them back.  Crazy socialists!

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