Individuals with college degrees are disproportionately represented among internet health information seekers. One study found that individuals with less than a high school education made up only 5% of all online health information seekers, although they comprise 12% of the U.S. population. (However, even though individuals with less than a high school education may be less likely than their more highly educated peers to go online for health information, the same survey found that a sizable majority (71%) of internet users in this group have gone online looking for information about health.) A smaller percentage (20%) of adults who have below basic health literacy receive information about health topics online than those who had basic (42%), intermediate (67%), or proficient (85%) health literacy.On some sites, the skew towards a more highly educated audience may be even more pronounced. For example, according to a 2005 study of visitors to the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus webpage, approximately 40% of respondents reported having at least some graduate-level education.
Although there is credible evidence about the education-health IT link, there is less compelling proof about the relationship between household income and going online looking for health information, among internet users. For example, in the 2005 HINTS survey, internet users with household incomes below $25,000 were almost as likely to look for medical information about themselves, and were more likely to do so than individuals with household incomes that fell between $25,000 and $75,000. Another study that used multivariate regression to control for other characteristics found little evidence of differences in health-related internet use by income.
One expert we consulted suggested that the main construct for understanding who uses the internet for health and who does not centers on who is skilled at finding information. He suggested that “the new digital divide is not a purely economic one, but it relates to whether individuals possess the necessary skills in today’s information economy, which have to do with finding information, finding the right information, making sense of that information and then using it.” Our expert reported that this skill set is linked to education, but does not appear to correlate with race or ethnicity.