The popularity of online health information continues to soar. As the world moves beyond the pandemic, people are doing more to ensure their own physical health and mental well-being. That’s a trend that is fueling their appetite for online health information.
While physicians are continuing to work at a frenetic pace to meet the wide array of demands from their patients, the rapid evolution of the internet and social media has nonetheless created a “digital society” where the percentage of people who are using the internet to self-diagnose continues to rise.
Why are more people doing their own health research?
The pandemic changed everything, and online self-diagnosis has become the norm for much of modern society. With more than 90% of U.S. adults having access to the internet, the first step that people are likely to take whenever they experience an earache or a sudden pain in their elbow is to reach for their tablet or smartphone to page “Dr. Google.”
Today, people are often relying on the internet and social media to look up everything from the medical issues they’re experiencing to possible treatment options. A recent Forbes article published information about a survey in which 25% of respondents said they relied on search engines to research new treatment options, and almost 30% said they use search engines to look up the side effects of prescribed medications.
The uptick in these online search activities hasn’t gone unnoticed by forward-thinking healthcare organizations that have begun adopting new online marketing strategies to attract potential patients. For example, search engines are often a starting point for people who want to research new doctors and treatment options. Today physicians and healthcare organizations are optimizing their websites for SEO (search engine optimization) to successfully drive more potential patients to their sites. One SEO strategy that can be particularly effective is the targeting of local keywords. “Near me” searches for health-related services have doubled since 2015.
Who is searching for health information online?
Our society is a whole lot different than it was before December of 2019 when Covid-19 first began to appear. Two and a half years later, our society is growing increasingly more dependent on the availability of reliable health information, and they’re used to being able to access it whenever they want it–whether by scrolling their social media feeds, Googling, or by using some other popular search engine.
A closer look reveals that the profile of the people most likely to search the internet for health information are college-educated white women between the ages of 35 and 64 earning over $50K a year. In terms of what kind of health information people are searching for, the range is wide and varied. For example, our research showed that people suffering from depression are at least 40% more likely to turn to the internet for help because of the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues in our society.
How to know if the health information found online is reliable
An important thing for people to keep in mind is that, despite how easily accessible, the online health information they’re accessing is not tailor-made to their unique condition. Sources often aren’t considered, and few people follow up with their medical professionals to verify the reliability of the information they’re finding. In the end, people can become completely misinformed by the content they find online and that can lead to disastrous consequences.
It’s a liability that’s particularly harmful to our youngest generation–approximately 40% of teens today have difficulty discerning between which online health messages are real and which are not.
A lot of people in our society are trying to use social media and the internet to gain popularity. That’s led to a rise in influencers that will post whatever content they think will get them more clicks. That desire can lead to the proliferation of erroneous content that, while well-intentioned, can be very harmful if adopted without consulting a credentialed medical professional.
The source of any content that is posted online must always be considered, and the first question people need to ask is, “Is this a qualified medical professional?”
The most compelling statistics we found about online health information seeking (OHIS) behaviors are listed below:
Almost 90% of adults in America search for health information on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube
Over 75% of Americans research their health symptoms using social media sites
Of all the patients accessing social media sites for health information, 4 out of 10 are interested in provider / practice reviews
Approximately 40% of Americans research their doctor’s suggestions after a visit–80% of them use the internet to do it
Nearly 70% of the users on the internet will go online to look up a specific disease
As our lives have become increasingly more digital, searching for health information online is expected to become a global trend. The most crucial thing that physicians should be sharing with patients who are searching for online health information is to encourage them to limit their search activities to reputable websites like government entities, respectable medical centers, and credentialed professionals. Any medical recommendations that are promoted on social media should always be vetted by someone with the proper medical credentials before being adopted.
Scheduling an office visit with a doctor isn’t always convenient, but doctors should always be given an opportunity to evaluate new information with their patients.