Fewer Patients Researching Personal Health Issues

November 22, 2011

November 22, 2011 — Fewer patients are researching personal health issues, according to a new study from the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC). Strangely enough, the rise of the knowledge-rich Internet may help explain why.

In 2007, 56% of American adults reported seeking health information from sources other than their physician, including the Internet, books, magazines, and newspapers; friends or relatives; and radio or television, writes Ha Tu, MPA, a senior researcher at HSC. By 2010, this percentage had slipped to 50%.

Much, if not most, of this change reflects a sharp drop-off in the reliance on printed materials for health research — from 32.9% of adults in 2007 to 18.2% in 2010. The Internet is widely blamed for the declining circulation of newspapers and magazines, which Tu views as a partial explanation for why Americans are abandoning print media in their search for health advice.

At the same time, use of the Internet inched up only slightly, from 31.1% of adults to 32.6%. In other words, not all the people who have stopped reading health columns in magazines and newspapers have necessarily begun to access such material online.

Tu found this dampened curiosity about symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments in almost all demographic groups, including the highly educated and the super-rich. However, it was most pronounced in Americans age 50 years and older — whose reliance on printed media decreased the most among all age groups — as well as people with chronic medical conditions and those lacking a college education.

Tu writes that this decline in information-seeking comes as a surprise. Burdened with rising healthcare costs, Americans presumably would be more motivated — not less — to research their treatment options and costs. In addition to pointing a finger at the shrunken role of print media, Tu speculates that some Americans may have given up on health homework because they found it frustrating in the past.

"The very abundance of information sources available about health — particularly on the Internet — may well be contributing to information overload, anxiety and confusion by some consumers," Tu writes.

Initiatives to improve both health literacy and patient education materials promise to address the problem, according to Tu. Another solution is the patient-centered medical home, where physicians who are ordinarily too busy to focus on patient education can delegate that task to other clinicians.

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