A new study finds that people with disabilities are one of two groups most likely to use the Internet to find health-related information. Researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the disabled and people with chronic health conditions are more likely than other Internet users to search online for health-related topics. These users, according to the study, are most likely to use what they learn online to ask questions of their physicians, manage pain or find new ways to deal with long-term health issues like diabetes and osteoporosis.
Researchers were surprised to find that at least half of Internet searches about health are done by people other than patients. Interviewed on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, the Pew projects Susannah Fox said the Internet provides new ways for family and friends to show they care about another’s health situation.
“When someone gets sick, people aren’t just bringing flowers or a hot dish because it’s not always the patient that can handle the research,” Fox said. “It’s the friends and family who surround them who are able to do that research on their behalf.”
The Pew research also found that even as patients are doing online research in ever greater numbers, they’re not always comfortable telling their doctors about it. The exceptions are patients with disabilities and chronic diseases, who are more likely than other patients to use what they find online to challenge their health-care providers.
Even though the Pew study reveals that doctors want to know about their patients’ online medical sleuthing so they can answer questions raised by online materials, they worry about the contradictory and often unreliable, even quack, medical content on the Web.
“It’s a very chaotic, tough world out there on the Internet on health,” researcher Robert Hawkins told NPR. His 17 years of research at the University of Wisconsin suggest that average Internet users are overwhelmed by the amount and range of health-related Web content they find. They don’t necessarily know how to distinguish between valid information vetted by independent research and clinical practice and dangerous or possibly exploitative gimmickry that plays on people’s fears and lack of scientific knowledge.
Hawkins found that Internet users who fared best doing sound online health research took advantage of unbiased expert guidance about how to spot illegitimate content and what to look for in scientifically sound medical sites.