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Web-Savvy Consumers High on Health

But people don't surf to buy drugs

FRIDAY, May 11 (HealthScout) -- Despite the geeky image some still have of avid computer users, people who frequent the Internet seem to care more about health and fitness than those who don't go online, says a new survey.

But while they turn to the World Wide Web for information on hard-core medical matters, Internet users still are dragging their feet when it comes to buying drugs online, the survey says.

Nearly half of all Americans have accessed the Internet in the last 30 days, reports Roper Starch Worldwide, the research firm which did the poll as a joint project with the magazine Yahoo! Internet Life to determine how Internet use affects the marketplace.

In the process, the pollsters uncovered a wealth of tidbits on the health-related habits and the likes and dislikes of America's onliners.

For instance:

  • 76 percent of online consumers say they're moderately to very active physically, compared with 61 percent of their offline counterparts.
  • 59 percent feel stressed at least once a week, while less than half of non-Internet users complain of stress.
  • 79 percent agree with the statement, "The way you look affects the way you feel."
  • 90 percent have a high opinion of doctors, but only 41 percent feel that way about the health insurance industry.
  • 40 percent visit health-oriented Web sites regularly.
  • 4 percent have purchased vitamins or medicines online.

This reluctance to buy medicines over the Internet apparently runs contrary to the overall buying habits of 'Net-savvy consumers. Typically, active onliners not only research possible purchases via the Web but also actively buy, the pollsters say.

However, online users are more apt to try alternative remedies than other Americans, the survey says.

Poll responses indicated more awareness among Internet users of such things as aromatherapy, massage, acupuncture and herbal remedies as ways to improve health. And, 18 percent of onliners said they'd used an herbal supplement in the last 24 hours, compared with 10 percent of those who don't use the Internet.

Onliners also visit health sites on the Web frequently, elevating such sites to No. 4 on the most-visited list, behind travel, news/weather and game sites, the survey says.

The pollsters conducted eight surveys nationwide from 1999 to 2000. Each involved face-to-face interviews in the homes of 2,000 people, age 18 and older, with the number of Internet users about equal to the number of nonusers.

Opinions about health issues were mixed.

Doctors were ranked with teachers and clergy as the professionals most respected by onliners. The health insurance industry was among the least-respected businesses, ranking above only the oil and tobacco industries.

"That's not too surprising," says Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association, in Washington, D.C.

"Most people tend to like their doctors but not the health system, just like they like their school or their kids' teachers but not the education system," Levinson says.

Likewise, online users seemed quite happy with some aspects of their medical care, but not so thrilled with others.

The quality of the care got high marks, with 79 percent saying they were "fairly" or "very" satisfied, and the availability of care pleased 76 percent.

But 56 percent of active Internet users considered the cost of medical care unreasonable, as did 55 percent of Americans who stay offline.

"The unhappiness with cost is a little bit surprising, since many in this group are receiving fairly full health insurance provided by employers," Levinson says,

He says Americans generally are not particularly cost-conscious about health care unless they have no health insurance.

Survey responses about prescription drugs were mixed as well.

Fifty-seven percent looked kindly on the pharmaceutical industry, although it ranked on a par with cable TV and long-distance phone companies. And 61 percent rated prescription drugs as good or excellent, lower than ratings for products of most other industries. Only alcohol, oil and auto parts ranked lower, the pollsters say.

Some attitudes may reflect the state of health care in the United States, with people showing a lot of "stress and distress about their coverage," Levinson says.

"Health care seems to be in a mess at the present time. With 43 [million] to 45 million uninsured Americans, we obviously don't have a health care 'system,'" he says.

"Hopefully we're in a transition to something more effective and efficient, but now it's somewhat chaotic," he says.

What To Do

For a report on the improving health and longevity of Americans, visit the Web site of the journal Pediatrics.

For links to an array of health-oriented publications on the Web, go to the National Library of Medicine.

And, for some of the non-health information the Roper/Yahoo! pollsters discovered about Internet users, check Media Life magazine.

Or, read previous HealthScout articles on the Internet and health.

SOURCES: Interview with Richard Levinson, M.D., associate executive director, American Public Health Association, Washington, D.C.; March 2001 America's New Consumers: How Internet Use is Redefining the Marketplace
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