For all of its use of technology and research, the medical field has lagged behind the online world. It has been slow to digitize analog documents, shies away from user customization, and makes a virtue of anti-transparency. Also, like the automotive sector, health care is pretty close to the heart of mainstream American life.
Why does this matter? If we want to see how ordinary folks, the nondigerati, actually use technology, observing how folks use technology in a medical setting could be very useful. The Pew Internet & American Life Project released their latest survey this month, and the results, while non-shocking, reveal much about non-Luddite, non-hacker life.
First, while many people use the internet to learn more about their health (see below), they usually get offline to communicate with medical people. The “vast majority of this care and conversation took place offline”. We can imagine various reasons: HIPAA, time pressures, policy and technological hurdles.
Second, the majority of internet users hit the Web for medical questions: “72% of internet users say they looked online for health information of one kind or another within the past year.” And a sizable chunk did this not for themselves,but for others: “Another 39% say they looked for information related to someone else’s health or medical situation.”
Another chunk, about one-third of online people, hit the internet to diagnose what they think is wrong with themselves or someone they know.
Thirty-five percent of U.S. adults (“online diagnosers”) say that at one time or another they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have.
Anecdotally, I know this drives many medical practitioners crazy.
Third, paywalls block information access for some:
“Twenty-six percent of internet users who look online for health information say they have been asked to pay for access to something they wanted to see online. Of those who have been asked to pay, just 2% say they did so. Fully 83% of those who hit a pay wall say they tried to find the same information somewhere else. Thirteen percent of those who hit a pay wall say they just gave up.”
Fourth, there’s a social element to online health seeking, but not necessarily using social media, at least for a minority of users:
“26% say they read or watched someone else’s experience about health or medical issues in the last 12 months. 16% of internet users say they went online in the last year to find others who might share the same health concerns.”
But only “1% say they started at a social network site like Facebook.”
Fifth, health insurance didn’t make a difference to people’s information-seeking.
“There is no statistically significant difference between those who have health insurance and those who do not when it comes to using the internet to figure out an illness.”
What to make of this? It seems that Americans are migrating online, but in stages and increments. Some are not online at all, but nevertheless consume medical care. Others are netizens, but do not make much use of cyberspace to understand their health. Meanwhile a chunk of the populace heads online for a variety of medical purposes… except for communicating with health care professionals.