Internet is a de facto second opinion – or even first opinion – for many people

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One in three adults in the United States say that at one time or another, they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have; however, medical professionals are still most people’s top choice when they are dealing with a serious health concern, according to the results of a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project announced Jan. 15.

Among those who have used online information to try to diagnose themselves or someone else, 53 percent said they later saw a medical professional to talk about their concerns. Clinicians were more likely than not to confirm the online diagnosis.

Among the survey’s findings:

· 59 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they looked online for health information within the past year.

· Of those, 8 in 10 said they started their last health inquiry at a general search engine. Smaller groups started at a dedicated health website or social networking site.

· 1 in 4 health information seekers said they had encountered a pay wall. Most tried to find the same information somewhere else, but some just gave up. Only 2 percent paid the fee.

“Online health information is available day or night, at no cost, and the Internet has become a de facto second opinion for many people,” said Susannah Fox, an associate director of the project and lead author of the report. “The open search box invites people to begin their journey toward better health, but this study shows that the Internet is just one piece of the puzzle. Clinicians are still central.”

When asked about the last time they had a serious health issue, 70 percent of respondents said they got information, care or support from a doctor or other health care professional; 60 percent said they got information or support from friends and family; and 24 percent got information or support from others who have the same health condition. Most of these interactions occurred offline.

The social life of health information is a small but steady presence in American life. In addition to the care and communication provided by family, friends and fellow patients, 26 percent of Internet users have read about or watched someone else’s experience about health or medical issues in the last 12 months.

There has been little growth in the use of health care-related review sites. One in five Internet users have consulted online reviews and rankings of health care service providers and treatments, compared with, for example, the 8 in 10 users who say they have researched a general consumer product or service online. Only 3 to 4 percent of Internet users have posted a health care-related review.

The results reported in Health Online 2013 come from a nationwide survey of 3,014 adults living in the United States. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (1,808) and cellphone (1,206, including 624 without a landline phone).

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the PewResearchCenter, a nonprofit organizaation that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Support for the project is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Support for this study was provided by the California HealthCare Foundation, an independent philanthropy committed to improving the way health care is delivered and financed in California.

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