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Googling for health information: A needle in a very, very, large haystack

Tags: public health

Previously, I talked about smart speakers , how they can be used as a way to find health information, and some of the implications this has for the delivery of healthcare. I want to switch gears a little bit now, and discuss how we, as patients, search for information prior to going to the doctor. To talk about that, I’m going to focus on a recently published report by KRC Research, titled “The Great American Search for Healthcare Information,” which was a survey of 1700 American adults who searched for health-related information at least once a year. The study found that 81% of Americans fit this category, which means that approximately 261 million Americans are searching online for health information, of which 34% are searching for this information monthly, and 18%, or almost 1 in 5 people, are searching for health-related information weekly. This is a large proportion of people searching for information on a very regular basis. With the wealth of information out there, some of which is accurate, but a non-zero percentage of which is inaccurate at best, and fraudulent at worst, understanding how patients manage their care outside of the healthcare system, and what their concerns are, can help providers improve their delivery mechanisms and approach to patients.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of being able to find health information online is that there are a diverse range of sources available. Indeed, this was listed by 54% of the respondents as one of the main benefits of healthcare information today. However, the contrast to this is that there is a lot of false or misleading information out there, and almost the same percentage of respondents identified this as a problem (52%). This is further exacerbated by patients being concerned about studies that contradict each other, which makes it harder to know which is “right.”

Concerns patients have about health information online can inform how apps and programs should be developed and delivered (Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels)

One of the interesting aspects of this report was their findings on differences between generations, particularly baby boomers (1946-1964) vs millennials (1981-1996). Personal preference for the specific cut points aside (I know some 1981 folks who would be very angry at being called millenials), there were some interesting differences in the perception of information. For example, while ~60% of boomers and greatest generation respondents were likely to report being concerned about health related information being used to sell you products and services, this was only a concern for a third of millenials (36%). There were also interesting differences in how they use digital health products – while 37% of millenials used health-related smartphone or tablet apps, only 19% of boomer did. While this may not be surprising, it does have implications for how providers may need to use different approaches to reach these different patient groups.

One thing that should be noted though, that despite the increased availability of chatbots, telemedicine, apps, smart speakers, and other ways one can get health information, the top sources are still the traditional ones: friends, family and your family doctor. In fact, while 53% of respondents cited medical websites as their most recent source for health-related information, the next two most common sources were medical doctors (48%) and family members (26%). Knowing someone, or having personal contact with a provider, may still carry more impact than a website that a patient may read, especially if this means they can make sense of conflicting articles they have read. Another item that differed wildly by generation was that while 83% of boomers said they “always listen to their doctor”, this was only 69% among millenials. On the other hand, 38% of millenials said they trust their peers more than medical professionals, while this was only 14% among boomers. There may be skepticism of medical professionals in this age group, and this may be an issue providers should focus on as millenials age in the age groups where health issues start to emerge. The implications for this could be important as well, especially if it results in non-adherence to medication, lifestyle changes, or people not following physician advice and guidance.

I highly recommend checking out the report in more detail and drawing your own conclusions, as there is a wealth of information contained within. I was drawn to the similarities and differences between generations, as this may point to a need to develop targeted and focused services for individuals at each age group to ensure they are engaged and empowered with accurate information to manage their health.

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