Betting the Internet Can Help Keep Them Healthy takes

Now’s the time for an industrious medical researcher to begin a longitudinal study on the health effects of the Internet. Take a bunch of people who go online for medical information and a bunch of people who don’t, then wait to see which cohort keels over first. If onliners die out sooner, it’ll demonstrate that information technology is also misinformation technology.

Already, the number of Americans who seek medical information via the Internet stands at 52 million, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American LifeProject. What sort of data do these people wish to find? In a survey conducted among adults who said they go online for healthcare information, 70 percent made their most recent foray to get “information about a specific illness or condition.” About one in four sought “information about fitness and nutrition” (13 percent) or “basic news or information about health and healthcare” (11 percent). Nine percent said they were seeking “information about specific doctors, hospitals or medicines.”

If you’re assuming the people who hunt for such information are hypochondriacs in cyberspace, the study suggests otherwise. Asked to rate their own health, 39 percent of the survey respondents said that it’s “excellent”; another 49 percent termed it “good.” Only 2 percent said their health is “poor,” with the rest terming it “only fair.”

As you can see from the chart, nearly half the respondents credit the Internet with yielding a significant benefit to their health. It’s not as if people have a blind faith in the data they’re getting. Just 16 percent said one can believe “almost all” of the health information online. Another 36 percent said “most” of it is credible. A cautious plurality (44 percent) said “some” of it merits belief. The anonymity of the Internet is a plus:46 percent said it’s “very important” to them when they look for health information. Likewise, 16 percent have gone online to “get information about a sensitive health topic that is difficult to talk about.”

What do people do with the online data once they’ve got it? Thirty percent have discussed their findings with a medical professional. Just over half said they’ve changed the way they eat or exercise as a result of material they’ve discovered online.Rob Nelson/Black Star/Picture Quest