Thirty-five percent of U.S. adults 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. These findings come from a national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Throughout this report, they call those who searched for answers on the internet “online diagnosers.”
When asked if the information found online led them to think they needed the attention of a medical professional, 46% of online diagnosers say that was the case. Thirty-eight percent of online diagnosers say it was something they could take care of at home and 11% say it was both or in-between.
When they asked respondents about the accuracy of their initial diagnosis, they reported:
- 41% of online diagnosers say a medical professional confirmed their diagnosis. An additional 2% say a medical professional partially confirmed it.
- 35% say they did not visit a clinician to get a professional opinion.
- 18% say they consulted a medical professional and the clinician either did not agree or offered a different opinion about the condition.
- 1% say their conversation with a clinician was inconclusive.
- Women are more likely than men to go online to figure out a possible diagnosis. Other groups that have a high likelihood of doing so include younger people, white adults, those who live in households earning $75,000 or more, and those with a college degree or advanced degrees.
It is important to note what these findings mean – and what they don’t mean. Historically, people have always tried to answer their health questions at home and made personal choices about whether and when to consult a clinician. Many have now added the internet to their personal health toolbox, helping themselves and their loved ones better understand what might be ailing them. This study was not designed to determine whether the internet has had a good or bad influence on health care. It measures the scope, but not the outcome, of this activity.
Clinicians are a central resource for information or support during serious health episodes — and the care and conversation take place mostly offline
To try to capture a focused picture of people’s health information search and information-assessment strategies, they asked respondents to think about the last time they had a serious health issue and to whom they turned for help, either online or offline:
- 70% of U.S. adults got information, care, or support from a doctor or other health care professional.
- 60% of adults got information or support from friends and family.
- 24% of adults got information or support from others who have the same health condition.
The vast majority of this care and conversation took place offline, but a small group of people did communicate with each of these sources online. And, since a majority of adults consult the internet when they have health questions, these communications with clinicians, family, and fellow patients joined the stream of information flowing in.