Last Thursday, the Pew Internet Project and California HealthCare Foundation released “The Social Life of Health Information, 2011.” Conducted among 3,001 adults in the U.S. during August and September of 2010, the survey reveals how digital is changing people’s relationship with information and with their own health.

This year’s report is, in general, an update of trends that were first measured in Pew’s 2009 “The Social Life of Health Information” report, and overall, the findings are similar to what was previously reported. However, emerging trends and nuances are important to note – aside from being an easy and interesting read.

While the Pew report focuses strictly on U.S. adults, it will be interesting to compare findings and trends with data from our 2011 Edelman Health Barometer, which will be launching in the fall.

Still #1

While online resources are becoming a more significant source of health information in the U.S., health professionals continue to be the go-to source for most people with health concerns. In fact, 70% of people surveyed visited their doctor to receive information, care or support the last time they had a health concern. Meanwhile, of the 74% of adults who use the Internet, 80% of users have looked online for information about a number of health topics, such as a specific disease or treatment. When expanded to the entire U.S. population, this translates into 59% of all adults. As Susannah Fox writes, “While the Internet is beginning to transform how individuals receive health information and support, it still plays a supplemental role – and mobile connectivity has not changed that.”

Social Media

One data point that may go against conventional wisdom is that social networking sites, while popular, are used sparingly for health updates and queries. As of September 2010, 62% of U.S. adult Internet users reported using social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, meanwhile only 15% have gotten health information from these sites and even fewer (11%) have posted comments or questions about health. While there has been a surge over the past few years in social networking as a whole, it’s clear that health companies, organizations and brands as well as the public are struggling with how to best and most effectively engage in the social health space. Perhaps, there’s even a health social media ceiling? How many people really do want to “like” strep throat, anyway?

Self-tracking

One in four adult Internet users track their own health data online. Carol Torgan, a health science strategist, calls these individuals who track their blood pressure, weight, etc. (either online or offline) “self trackers.” The report found that 27% of Internet users have tracked their weight, diet, exercise routine or other health indicator or symptom online. While you may think that this translates directly to mHealth, as mobile technology allows individuals to more easily stay in touch with and track their health information, the report notes that of the 85% of adults who own a cell phone, only 9% have apps on their phones allowing them to track or manage their health.

Peer-to-Peer

With the rise of sites such as PatientsLikeMe, an increasing number of individuals, currently at 18%, are going online to find others with health concerns similar to their own. And it’s those Internet users who have experienced a recent medical emergency, their own or someone else’s, who are more apt to go online to try to find someone who shares their situation: 23%, compared with 16%.

The Multiplier Effect

The typical search for health information is on behalf of someone else. Nearly half of Internet users (48%) who go online for health information say their last search was on behalf of another person. In other words, while eight in ten Internet users go online for health information, the impact of their inquiries may be even broader. One contributor to this effect are caregivers. More than one quarter of U.S. adults provide unpaid care to a loved one – 27% care for an adult relative or friend and five percent care for a child with a health condition. Caregivers represent a significant, influential and active population on social networking sites. While these types of sites may not be a major source of health information for individuals diagnosed with an illness, for caregivers they represent an opportunity to gather and share health information and support; and an opportunity for us to engage them in the online space.

 

Image credit: tocaboca

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