When confronted with some of life's common problems, more people rely on the internet for information and support than they do on experts or family members.
The report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that 76% of US adults have access to the internet, a figure that has shown little change over the past 2 years. Likewise, broadband access (reported by 77% of all users or 55% of all American adults) remains a major determinant for how often people access the internet, the variety of reasons they do so, and the richness of the experience while they are on it. Persons with only dial-up access to the internet at home (what they refer to as low access) were more likely to have household incomes < $40K, have a high school diploma or less and be age 62 years or older.
In the study, 45% (n=756) of the sample reported they had dealt with a serious illness or other health condition experienced by either themselves or someone close to them in the past two years - the most common of the ten problems asked about. In coping with health problems, the sources of information were quite different from the overall picture. People looking for information and support for a health problem were most likely to consult a health professional (86%) followed by family or friends (51%), the internet (46%), print sources (37%), TV or radio (17%) and government agencies (16%).
These data need to put into context with other research by the Pew Internet Project that has found, for example, that 80% of all US adult internet users have searched for health information on the web. While searching for health information may be an activity that engages a majority of people at some point in time, when a health situation arises health information seeking becomes a high involvement behavior that may be aimed at reducing social distance and facilitating social support. However, it is also the case that the internet has surpassed all other media - other than interpersonal - as the preferred channel for health information for adults who have access to it.
Another Pew report noted the importance of the internet for those who provide care to a loved one who is sick:
- 36% said the internet helped them find advice or support from other people.
- 34% said the internet helped them find professional or expert services.
- 26% said the internet helped them find information or compare options.
Whether casually searching for health information, seeking it because of a health problem, or coping with the illness of someone, the internet has become a dominant part of the communication network people prefer to access. Equity of access, especially among people with no or low access, must continue to be an on-going policy concern as more Americans look to the internet for understanding and addressing their health care needs.