As of September 2012, 81% of U.S. adults use the internet and, of those, 72% say they have looked online for health information in the past year.
Since online personal diagnosis is a scenario that has intrigued observers for years – and caused some anxiety about people’s ability to navigate the online information landscape – the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project explored it in some depth in its most recent health survey. Of those who have looked online for health information, 59% say they have ever gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have. That translates to 35% of U.S. adults.
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 in the highest income bracket, and those with more education (see table below for details).
The following analysis is based on questions asked only of that 35% of the population who answered that they have gone online to figure out what they or someone else might have. We will refer to them as "online diagnosers."
First, online diagnosers were asked if the information they found online led them to think that this was a condition that needed the attention of a doctor or other medical professional, or that it was perhaps something they could take care of at home:
- 46% of online diagnosers say that the condition needed the attention of a doctor;
- 38% say it could be taken care of at home; and
- 11% said it was either both or in-between.
Fifty-three percent of online diagnosers say they talked with a medical professional about what they found online, 46% did not (see table below for details).
Separately, we asked if a medical professional confirmed what they thought the condition was and found that:
- 41% of online diagnosers say yes, a medical professional confirmed their suspicions. An additional 2% say a medical professional partially confirmed them.
- 35% say they did not visit a clinician to get a professional opinion.
- 18% say a medical professional either did not agree or offered a different opinion about the condition.
- 1% say their conversation with a clinician was inconclusive – the professional was unable to diagnose what they had.
There is no statistically significant difference between those who have health insurance and those who do not when it comes to using the internet to figure out an illness.
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.