Pew study: Social networks and health info

Faith Merino · May 12, 2011 · Short URL:

A new report explores the social channels available for finding health information on- and offline

In a study of 3,001 U.S. adults, a new report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center found that a full 80% of Internet users have looked online for health information pertaining to diseases, treatments, medications, and more.

There’s nothing more unsatisfying than googling your symptoms and turning up with no less than ten possible diagnoses. And yet we continue to do it, in some form or another. The Pew study finds that more than one third of adult Internet users have gone online to read a blog or commentary on someone else’s health experiences; one quarter of Internet users have watched a video online related to a health or medical issue; 24% have looked for online reviews of drugs and other medical treatments; and 18% have looked for others with the same illnesses or health concerns.

Shockingly—and I am truly shocked by this (I don’t just say “shockingly” to provide a gripping segue)—only 16% of Internet users consult online rankings of doctors and other healthcare providers. Personally, there’s nothing worse to me than a jerk doctor, or one who casually shrugs off my concerns about a rash on my leg that I think may be the early stages of leprosy, which is why I always check online rankings of doctors before I see a new one. Even fewer people do their homework on hospitals—a mere 15%. Don’t you want to find out if that hospital has a high rate of MRSA?

And as it turns out, health issues don’t translate well through social media. The study found that 23% of social network site users have followed a friend’s personal health experiences online, while only 11% have posted health-related comments, questions, or information. Even fewer—9%—have started or joined a health-related group on a social networking site.

But just because people generally don’t like to share their health concerns or issues with the world via a status update on Facebook, that doesn’t mean that they don’t explore social channels to find health information. While nearly three-quarters of all U.S. adults turn to medical professionals first, more than half also turn to friends and family for information, care, or support. The vast majority of those said they did so offline.

Caregivers are significantly more likely than other adults to turn to social networking sites to find health information online. Currently, 27% of U.S. adults care for an adult relative or friend, and 5% of adults care for a child with a disability or health condition. Those providing unpaid care are much more likely to go online for their health-related needs: 28% of caregivers who use social networks say they follow friends’ health updates, compared to 21% of other social network users.  Additionally, 20% who use social networks also say they’ve gathered health information from a social networking site, compared to just 12% of other social network users .

In this same vein, adults living with one or more chronic illnesses are significantly more likely to go online to gather health information: 20% of social network users with a chronic condition look for health information from social networks, compared to 12% who don’t suffer from a chronic illness.

A previous Pew study also showed that for adults living with chronic conditions—especially rare diseases—social media presents an opportunity to connect with others living with the same condition. Fully 23% of social network users living with a chronic condition user social media to connect with others with the same conditions. 

Image source: longmeadowlibraryfiles

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