With Notable Exceptions, U.S. Residents Are Turning to the Web for Health Information

Feb 03

Believe it or not, there are those among us who can still remember when “computers” were the kind of thing we saw on school field trips and “Google” wasn’t even a word. At that time (and it really wasn’t so long ago) social marketing and communications professionals relied on some practices that seem downright quaint today – I’m talking about press releases sent by snail mail to media outlets that produced news on paper or through a handful of broadcast networks, video shot with clunky shoulder and tripod-mounted cameras, and educational materials that were stored in government warehouses and made available mostly when consumers called toll-free numbers and requested them.

While most of us agree that today’s Web-driven communications enable us to be more persuasive, pervasive and creative, we are occasionally reminded that many of those we need to reach and influence aren’t necessarily online. This week’s reminder came with results of the Pew Internet Project and California HealthCare Foundation Health Topics report that showed strong demographic differences among those who turn to the Web for health information.

The report found that while a large number of white adults with some college education and those living in higher-income households frequently turn to online sources for health information, the number drops to less than 50 percent among African-Americans, Latinos, those with less than a high school education and those living in low-income households.

The result of a persistent Digital Divide? Perhaps – yet the report also found that fewer than half of those aged 65 and older and those with a disability turn to the Web when they’re looking for health information.

The study was led by Susannah Fox, Associate Director, Digital Strategy for the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, who wrote an interesting blog post for e-patients.net about the findings.

The report also has some useful overall information for health communications professionals, notably:

Overall, eight out of 10 Internet users look online for health information, making it the third most popular pursuit among those tracked by the Pew Internet Project.

  • 66 percent of those with online access look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem.
  • 56 percent look online for information about a specific medical treatment or procedure.
  • Adults who provide unpaid care for a friend or family member are among those most likely to have looked online for health information on various topics, with 88 percent reporting they have done so.
  • Since approximately 25 percent of adults do not go online, the percentage of those who seek health information on the Web is approximately 59 percent of the total U.S. adult population.

For social marketing professionals, the most significant message in these findings is that the Web can still be one of the best venues for engaging and influencing a large number of U.S. residents but it isn’t a panacea for health related communications to every audience. It’s also a good reason not to forget some practices that were proven effective long before any of us knew how to handle a mouse. We need to continue considering and evaluating the role of partners and intermediaries with established credibility among target audiences and remember that traditional media is still effective for some audiences. According to Pew’s “The State of the News Media” annual report on American journalism, well over half of U.S. adults aged 55 and over still read daily newspapers and the number rises to over 60 percent among those 65 and over.

We also need to recognize that swift advances in technology continue to make online access more affordable and accessible, which will likely boost participation rates among many audiences in the coming months and years. In other words – this report is a snapshot about the way various sectors of the population utilize the Internet for learning about health topics today, but the results may be very different a year from now. As noted by the report, “young people, Latinos and African Americans are increasingly likely to use mobile devices to gather information, which could potentially shift the patterns among those groups when it comes to using health information resources.” Opportunity could therefore be knocking for social marketers who utilize those technologies as effective engagement tools.

Read the full results and let us know what you think below.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 at 9:30 am and is filed under Public Health, Research + Insights, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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