TUESDAY, May 13, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Fewer Americans are logging onto the Internet for health information than originally thought, a new study contends.
While previous reports put the figure as high as 80 percent of people with Internet access, the new study says a more realistic number is about 40 percent of online users -- or only about 20 percent of the adult population.
Even fewer people say cyberspace has directly affected their health-care decisions, according to the study, which appears in the May 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"We should always keep in mind that there are a lot of different sources [of information] -- families, friends, print sources, calling your doctor, calling a nurse. The Internet is useful and is out there for a lot of folks," says study author Laurence Baker, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University School of Medicine.
"But we shouldn't come to the point that it's the only source or the only source people should be looking at," Baker says. "If there is a subset of folks who have questions about health, and a subset of those who think the Internet is the most useful tool, then 40 percent might actually be a pretty big number."
He cites a U.S. Census Bureau survey that found 62 percent of adults who go online check the news, weather or sports; 39 percent use it to shop; 18 percent to bank or pay bills; and 9 percent to trade stocks.
The new study was based on a survey collected in December 2001 and January 2002 from 4,764 individuals aged 21 or over who described themselves as Internet users.
They were asked to answer a series of questions about their use of the Internet and e-mail for health-care information. They were also asked about five chronic health conditions they might have -- heart problems, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and depression.
About 40 percent of the respondents said they'd used the Internet for health or health-care information during the past year. About one quarter reported e-mailing family or friends about health issues. Somewhat fewer people used e-mail or the Internet to communicate with other patients, while only 6 percent had emailed a health-care provider in 2001.
Although about a third of respondents said the Internet had affected a health or health-care decision, the specific impact was hard to gauge. Ninety-four percent said the Internet had not affected the number of times they visited their doctor, and 93 percent said the Web had not affected how often they telephoned their doctor. Only 5 percent said they had gotten prescription drugs or pharmaceutical products online. About one third of the respondents, however, said they'd used the Internet or e-mail to learn more about a particular prescription drug.
What's more, people didn't use the Internet all that often, according to the study. About three-quarters of those surveyed said they went online for health information once every two to three months or less. Twenty-two percent said they used it once a month or more.
Two-thirds of people who did not have one of the five chronic conditions outlined in the survey said the Internet had improved their understanding of health-care issues.
Individuals with less education were less likely to venture into cyberspace for health information.
Candy Tsourounis, an associate clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco School of Pharmacy, says she was "surprised that the numbers were lower than other estimates."
UCSF runs two different online "Ask Your Pharmacist" programs, one worldwide and the other only for Californians. Based on the track record of those services, Tsourounis would have guessed more people used the Internet for health-related information. It's possible that use varies based on location, one question the study authors did not answer, she adds.
Baker says the survey's findings could affect decisions by the medical community about the Internet in the future.
"There's been a lot of discussion of where the Internet is going to head over the next few years," he says. "There's a lot of interest in the medical community about using e-mail and electronic communication among patients. There's a general sense that activity is widespread and that we need to move with the world as the world moves into this in a big way."
But it's crucial to know exactly how much activity is going on. "It makes sense for us to be realistic about how many people are doing this and build a tool that's really useful," Baker points out.
The University of North Carolina School of Public Health has information on how to use the Internet for health information. So does the Canadian Health Network.