In light of the increasing use of the Internet as a source for health information and increasing Internet use for older adults, recently a team of researchers set out to survey how older adults use the Internet in relation to other, more traditional sources of health information. This survey aimed to identify what types of information older adults look for, how searches for health information relate to visits to health professionals, and how much trust they place in Internet sources relative to other sources of health information.
The 118 participants in this small survey had an average age of 72, ranging from 67 to 78. All participants had e-mail addresses, indicating that they possessed some degree of Internet access. These individuals reported that, overall, their most commonly used sources for health information were health professionals, pharmacists, and the Internet, with 53 percent of participants responding that they use these sources “a lot” or “a fair amount.” Other sources asked about included leaflets, television, newspapers, and health magazines. Interestingly, those participants who reported higher use of the Internet also reported higher use of other sources of health information as well, suggesting that online sources may not be a complete replacement for other, perhaps more reliable, sources of information.
Health professionals, pharmacists and the Internet were also the top three most trusted sources of health information. However, health professionals and pharmacists remained more trusted than the Internet. For health professionals, 76 percent reported trust levels of “a lot” or “a fair amount”; for pharmacists it was 73 percent. On the other hand, only 40 percent reported this level of trust in the Internet. Among older adults surveyed, 44 percent reported preferring to use the Internet, while 36 percent reported preferring sources such as magazines, and only 17 percent preferred health professionals. Despite reporting these preferences, 95 percent reported that they expect their doctor to provide all necessary information. The authors note that “our respondents clearly trust their health care professionals, but it also places tremendous and possibly unrealistic expectations of the capacity to convey information in a typical 10-minute appointment.”
Of those individuals who had sought health information in the past 12 months, 84 percent sought health information (via any of the sources asked about) after an appointment with a health care provider, 45 percent sought information prior to an appointment, and 40 percent searched in order to determine if an appointment was needed. The researchers also found that women were more likely than men to seek health information after an appointment. Which source for health information was used depended on the type of information sought. The Internet was the most used source for prognosis (68 percent), symptoms (64 percent), and treatment options (62 percent), while health care professionals were preferred sources for additional information on practical care (86 percent), nutrition/exercise (60 percent), medications (56 percent), coping (55 percent), and side effects (47 percent). The most-used paper resources were resources about side effects, which were used by 44 percent of participants.
This survey raised two main concerns about older adults’ searches for health information. First, 33 percent of respondents indicated that they had a need for additional health information but did not know where to find it. Second is those older adults not seeking out health information, via any means. In some cases, this could be because these older adults are in good health, but of greater concern are those who do not search because they prefer not to think about their health needs or they are not aware of a need for additional health information. The authors conclude that “seniors who seek health information seem likely to use the Internet and seniors who do not use the Internet for health information also tend to make less use of health information resources apart from health care professionals.” They suggest that additional research is needed on “how to reach seniors who prefer not to use the Internet for health information.”
The authors note that much about older adults’ online searches for health information remains to be known. This includes how they search for health information on the Internet (for example, via Google search or within a health portal like WebMD?), whether devices used affect search strategies, whether they feel like they have found the information that they need, and whether they are able to understand and correctly judge the quality and reliability of the information that is found via an Internet search.