By Jane Weaver Health editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/20/2005 1:41:37 PM ET 2005-05-20T17:41:37

Need to know the latest research on weight-gain worries or whether your doctor has been sued for malpractice? For many Americans, finding the health information they need means going online, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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Almost 80 percent of Internet users, an estimated 95 million adult Americans, use the Web to do health research. Not only are they doing Internet searches when diagnosed with an illness, but more often they're using the Web when they have questions about everyday health topics like diet and nutrition.

"People are going online not just when there is an acute situation, but for regular healthcare information," says Susannah Fox, a Pew Internet researcher. "There is the feeling that you can find the answers online."

The Pew survey is an update of the Washington research firm's 2002 report on how people use the Internet to look for health content. The recent study involved telephone interviews with 914 wired adults in the United States.

While the number of people using the Internet has remained steady for the last several years, what's new is that users are looking for a broader range of topics, including health insurance and experimental treatments, the survey found.

Women between 30 and 64 years of age are the most active health seekers online, with 82 percent hunting for information about medical treatments, prescription drugs or fitness. Women are more likely than men to look for specific disease information, mental health content and how to quit smoking.

'Power users'
Men as just as likely as women to search for exercise and fitness content or do comparisons on health insurance.

Overall, college graduates and "power users" (people who have been using the Internet for more than six years) are big health seekers online. The people most likely to use the Web for health topics are in their 30s, 40s and 50s, except for fitness which attracts a younger audience.

"Most often it's people in the middle-age groups who are gatekeepers for their families" who explore health topics online, says Fox. "They're the ones in a sandwich situation dealing with both kids and parents."

Over half of all online users have searched for information about diet, nutrition, vitamins or supplements, a significant increase over the last two years, the survey found. At least 40 percent of all Internet users used the Web to research prescription drugs, up from 34 percent in 2002.

People are also going online to find out more information about a particular doctor or hospital. While some doctors may feel uncomfortable with their patients bringing in Internet printouts to office visits, others see Web health searches as a good thing.

Dr. Daniel Sands, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is a primary care internist who actively promotes the Internet in his Boston-area practice. His waiting area has a computer with Internet access so patients can do health searches "instead of reading last year's Time magazine," he says.

Sands collects information about hundreds of health-related sites and often refers patients to the Web to read more about a specific disease or condition.

"I would much prefer to have a patient engaged in their health and learning about their illnesses than someone who doesn’t care at all about it to even know the facts," he says.

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