Estimates for the proportion of American adults that have used the internet to look for information about health range from approximately 40% to around 60%. Some evidence suggests that this use has grown over time. For example, in the 2003 HINTS survey only 50.7% of respondents said they had looked for health or medical information online about themselves, while two years later that number had increased by 7.7 percentage points. Among internet-using adults, one survey found that about 80% have looked for information about at least one major health topic online, a statistic that has remained relatively consistent since 2002.[*] Extrapolating out, this implies that approximately 113 million American adults visit websites for health information. Among internet-using adults, an estimated 7% report looking for health information online on a typical day, comparable to the percentage who use the internet to pay bills or look up a phone number or address on a given day.
Different studies paint different pictures of the internet’s role as a source of information relative to other sources. One study found that among those looking for information about health, 69% mentioned the internet as a source, compared to 59% who mentioned their own physicians, and 39% who cited other health care professionals. However, only a small number of individuals mention the internet as themain source of their health information.
In understanding the reach of online health information seeking, it is important to consider the fact that many of the individuals who are looking online for health information are doing so on behalf of someone else. For example, the HINTS survey found that in 2005 nearly the same percentage of respondents were looking for medical information for others as were looking for that type of information for themselves—59.5% and 58.4%, respectively. Another study found that about one-third of caregivers have sought information online.
Individuals are interested in a range of health topics. About 64% of all internet users said they were looking for information on a specific disease or medical problem. Wellness topics appear to be quite compelling, with about half of internet users reporting looking online for information about diet, nutrition, and vitamins; and a similar share seeking information on exercise or fitness. About a fifth (22% of internet users) go online to learn about mental health issues, with smaller percentages looking for information on dental health (15%), sexual health (11%), quitting smoking (8%), or problems with drugs or alcohol (8%). In addition to learning about specific medical issues, many go online to find out about health care topics, with 28% interested in health insurance and 13% seeking information on Medicare or Medicaid. In another survey, finding out information about treatments was a goal of 72% of people who went online seeking health related information, only a slightly smaller share than the 84% who were looking for general information on a condition.