Health With a Capital H

Pursuing a Healthy Life Online

August 29, 2011

By Nate Robinson, Senior Communications Manager

Pursuing a Healthy Life Online

Increased access to mobile technologies and a deeper engagement in social media empowers more and more people to share what they are doing or thinking with others.

This on-the-go access to the Internet is transforming many industries, including health care. People are tracking their workout routines. They are networking to find out how others cope with a particular disease. And they share information about specific diseases and conditions. Social networking sites themselves are not a major source of health care information, but they provide users with a useful platform for emotional support, reference, and encouragement.

Turning to Online Peer-to-Peer Support

The value of social networking played out in dramatic fashion earlier this year as Deborah Kogan explains in the article, "Facebook Saved My Son's Life." Kogan noticed that her son had a fever and a rash. The initial tests were inconclusive yet her son’s condition worsened. Facebook became Deborah’s outlet. She began posting pictures of her son along with captions regarding his declining health status. A friend noticed the symptoms because her son had similar symptoms and had been diagnosed with having Kawasaki disease. The friend demanded that she take him to the hospital right away, which saved his life.  

Kogan’s use of the Internet and social networking to search for health information is consistent with a growing trend that shows many people are going beyond friends and family and turning to online peer-to-peer connections for help. In fact, according to data gathered by Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, one in four Internet users living with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, lung conditions, cancer, or some other chronic ailment say they have gone online to find others with similar health concerns.

Searching Health Information Online

A 2010 telephone survey among adults ages 18 to 49, also conducted by Pew, found that 80 percent of Internet users reported going online to research health information. Of that number, 66 percent of those polled reported looking for information on a specific disease or medical problem. These numbers also reflect a growing trend that shows individuals are turning to various Web sites for more health information. 

Data from the same Pew survey indicate that one in four adults (mostly wireless users) track their own health information online. Caregivers rank highest among those using social networking sites to gather health information and follow a friend’s or a family member’s health updates.

As Susannah Fox, Associate Director for Digital Strategy at Pew, shared in a recent webcast sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the NIH’s Medicine: Mind the Gap series, “Facebook has been described as a PHR (personal health record) with privacy concerns.” As Fox explained in her presentation, there are challenges as well as opportunities involved. Significant pockets of society are not online, including older adults and individuals with disabilities which results in a lack of awareness. Caregivers, family members, friends, and others must work to bridge the gap and share information.

According to Pew’s research, nearly a quarter of those polled have gone online to find out more information about drug safety and recalls. Just under a quarter of those polled indicated that they have consulted online reviews of particular drugs or treatments.

In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration held a public hearing on how companies use the Internet, particularly social media, to promote prescription drugs, medical devices, and other regulated products. No resulting regulations have been issued to date, but this increased interest in how people gather and share information about drugs and devices is striking.

As it stands now, data from Pew and elsewhere indicate that health professionals remain vital to the health-search and decision-making process. The age-old practices of asking a health professional, a trusted friend, or a wise family member persist in the pursuit of better health.

Key Question: Are you using the Internet to search for health information?  If so, has the health information been helpful or harmful?