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The Social Life of Health Information

According to the latest study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Americans’ pursuit of health takes place within a widening network of both online and offline sources.” This June 2009 report highlights health information seeking behavior of American adults. The summary of findings show that:

  • 61 % of American adults look online for health information
  • American adults continue to turn to traditional sources of health information, even as many of them deepen their engagement with the online world
  • the social life of health information is robust
  • a majority of e-patients access user-generated health information
  • social networking sites are used only sparingly for health queries and updates
  • online health inquiries have an impact on decisions or actions and there are clearly more positive experiences than negative ones
  • Internet users report a surge of interest in information about exercise and fitness
  • Change is coming, whether through the spread of wireless devices or generational shifts.

The facts that I found most interesting in this report are the following:

  • People polled about all the sources they turn to for health information responded they turn to a health professional (86%), a friend or family member (68%), the internet (57%), books or other printed material (54%), insurance provider (33%) or another source (5%).  I think this has important implications for libraries and the provision of health information to consumers.  We need to be aware that more times than not consumers are asking a question for a loved one.  Also, note that the Internet is a more popular source than print by only 3 %.  The provision of patient education resources to care providers by medical libraries is essential as the number one source people are seeking health information is a health professional!  The Information Rx is one way libraries can help to bring information directly to the patient via the care provider while raising  further awareness of other resources available from the library.
  • I also found it important that health consumers are seeking tailored information to find a “just in time some one like me” story.  This speaks to the importance of social support for chronic conditions and new diagnosis.  Medical librarians can help consumers find this information by providing sources like this on their library site or sharing this kind of patient information in a tailored format for health providers.
  • The most powerful finding of this report is that online inquiries have a positive impact on decisions and actions.  Six out of every ten e-patients said they had an impact on their health or the health of someone they care for.  Of these e-patients, 60% say the information found online affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.  56% said it changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health or someone they take care of.  53% said it helped them to ask a doctor new questions.
  • The surge in interest about exercise and fitness is an opportunity for focused outreach.  It showed more growth than any other health topic.  Something to think about!

Check out the complete report for the Pew Internet and American Life and California HealthCare Foundation study, “The Social Life of Health Information.”

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