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Googling for Health

An image of a search bar with the question "do I have the flu?"

Our friends at the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study this week pointing to the increasing role of the web in medical diagnoses.

1 in 3 American adults is an “online diagnoser” — are you?
35% 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. Pew calls these folks “online diagnosers.” This is not really a new phenomenon —­ people have always tried to answer their health questions at home, calling friends, and debating about whether or not to go to the doctor. The difference now? We have Google!

Medical associations will be quick to warn of the dangers of self-diagnosis, but we see some reasons to celebrate the new findings. For starters: Consumers are becoming directly involved in gathering information about their health, seeking support, and participating in decisions about their health care! According to the survey, more than half (53%) of online diagnosers talked with a clinician about what they found online. (38% said it was something they could take care of at home.) And 41% of online diagnosers had their condition confirmed by a clinician.

Unsurprisingly, 8 in 10 online health inquiries start at a search engine.
According to the survey findings, when asked to think about the last time they hunted for health or medical information, 77% of online health seekers say they began at a search engine such as Google. This isn’t earth-shattering news, since most web searches start at Google. But it does present some challenges (misinformation galore) and opportunities for those of us in the health communication world (time to brush up on our SEO skills!)

And in case you’re wondering, 13% of survey respondents say they began their health search at a site that specializes in health information, like WebMD. Just 2% say they started their research at a more general site like Wikipedia, and a measly 1% say they started at a social network site like Facebook.

Learn more: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Health-online/Summary-of-Findings.aspx

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