The web is a source of information about a wide array of topics and a growing number of Americans are turning to the internet to find answers to health questions. A variety of commercial, nonprofit, and government sites provide articles, tips, and other information about disease and wellness topics.
The commercial site WebMD is a particularly popular source of free health information. In the third quarter of 2008, approximately 50 million unique monthly users visited the WebMD Health Network. Over the course of a year, it is estimated that WebMD content is accessed by 95% of U.S. adults who view health information online. Studies from several years ago confirm the popularity of WebMD. One online survey that asked individuals to name up to three websites for health information, found that more than half selected WebMD, with 25% each choosing MSN Health or Yahoo! Health.
A study of internet usage data from September 2004 noted many visits to sites sponsored by the federal government, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website (2.4 million visitors), the CDC site (740,000 visitors), and the main site of DHHS (384,000). The NIH domain includes the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus site, which contains information on 750 health topics, as well as news reports, tutorials, and information on prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Another set of players in the online information world includes companies that produce health products. For example, Knoll, a company that produces a thyroid treatment, sponsored the Gland Central site. In exchange for having access to that site, users were required to provide information about themselves and their medications, which provided the company with potentially valuable information for targeted marketing efforts. (At the time of this report, the site was no longer operational.) Companies that sell diet products are also popular among internet health searchers, with 5% of searchers reporting visiting Weight Watchers and an equal percentage visiting eDiets.com. In another health promotion realm, one study found that two of the three websites most commonly mentioned as sources of assistance for smoking cessation were sponsored by tobacco companies.
Nonprofit organizations, health providers, universities, and medical associations also sponsor websites with information on a range of health topics. One study found that websites sponsored by online services were the most popular type of site, with about twice as many viewers than the next most popular options—sites sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, academic or research institutions, and medical journals.
One study explored the ways that health seekers begin their online quest for health information. About two-thirds of the respondents said that they had used a general search engine (for example, Google or Yahoo) at the start of their most recent online health session, while the remaining one-third went directly to a specific website. That study did not examine the use of health-specific search engines, although the author noted the growing popularity of such search engines as Healthline.com, Healia.com, Kosmix.com, Mammahealth.com, and Medstory.com.
In addition to individuals seeking health information on their own initiative, providers can play a role in directing patients to information. First introduced in 1992, “information therapy” involves helping consumers gain knowledge to improve their own health and well-being. This practice has gained increasing prominence. Following a pilot project in 2002-2003, the American College of Physicians Foundation and the National Library of Medicine launched nationwide their Information Rx Program in 2006. Through this effort, physicians can use a special prescription pad to inform patients how to access information from MedlinePlus to better understand their conditions. Kaiser Permanente and other health care organizations have also adopted an information therapy approach.
Once individuals land on a health-related website, they might be directed to information that is applicable to them. For example, in 2008 WebMD introduced a series of slideshows on their website to allow people to view pictures of such items as rashes, tick bites, and bed bugs. Visitors who recognize their own bites or rashes can then access related text. Similarly, the “symptom checker” function helps individuals to determine whether they are showing signs that might be consistent with a particular ailment. Another feature to help viewers access relevant information is the pill identifier, which was designed to assist consumers who have removed medications from their original pillboxes. The website www.howsyourhealth.org is another example of how information can be tailored to users. After individuals complete a questionnaire of more than 100 items, the website generates a page of information with links to modules on health topics the survey identified as potential areas of concern.