Web-Based Consumer Health Information: Public Access, Digital Division, and Remainders

Daniel Lorence, PhD, JD; Heeyoung Park, MHA, MS

In This Article

Prior Research

Despite the ambitious technology advancement efforts of the late 1990s, little has been done to examine the availability of Web resources across underserved groups, and no standardized mechanism exists to ensure equal access to the valuable benefits mentioned above. Little evidence is available to even identify an underserved consumer population that may lack equal access to health information. To address the digital divide, however, healthcare managers and policymakers will need to develop, under the National Health Information Infrastructure (NHII) plan, new strategies or interventions to help the underserved groups gain access to information that is relevant to their healthcare.[11]

Several randomized studies on Internet users have been conducted to identify the characteristics of the digitally underserved population. Generally, such studies reported that people in higher age groups and with lower socioeconomic status and ethnic minority were less likely to connect to the Internet and search for relevant health information on the Web.[12,13,14,15] In particular, annual income has been suggested as a key indicator of access to the Internet and online health information, because lower income impedes consumers to gain access to the Internet as well as computers. Consequently, lower income people have fewer opportunities to explore online health information.[16,17]

Regardless of the low-cost public access to computer technology, no studies have shown whether low-income populations have a differentiated pattern of access to and use of the Internet, and if so, why and to what extent such patterns exist. The purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which annual income levels have influenced distribution patterns and diffusion trends in access to computers, the Internet, and online health information. In particular, 2 research questions were proposed: First, were low-income populations significantly underserved in regard to computer access, Internet access, and information seeking of health information in 2002? Second, despite telecommunications and technology advances, did differences between the low- and high-income population in access to computers, Internet services, and online health information narrow, remain constant, or widen from March 2000 to December 2002 following the creation of divide-reducing programs?


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