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No One Way to Hold Sway

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By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Six years ago, when my primary care physician suggested I have an MRI to help figure out why my left fingertips kept tingling, I went straight home, sat down at the computer and typed "tingling fingers MRI" into my Web browser's search box.

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That's what we women do.

Independent studies conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and market research done by the folks who run health-oriented Web sites show that women, more than men, turn to the Internet for help with their health. In 2006, a Pew survey found 82 percent of wired women used the Internet for health purposes; 77 percent of men did the same. And WebMD, the most-visited commercial health site on the Internet (according to research from HealthRatings.org), reports that a whopping 78 percent of its visitors are female.

But even though we gals are flocking to Internet health sites, we aren't all using them the same way.

Pew research shows that women are more likely than men to search online for information about a specific disease or medical problem (69 percent to 58 percent). But Nan Forte, executive vice president for consumer services at WebMD, says women's focus "is very much dependent on their age."

"Thirty percent of [the women visiting WebMD] have children under 18 in their household," Forte says. In other cases, the woman "is a caregiver for herself and for her family. That expands her interest to everything from poison ivy to PMS -- and the poison ivy probably isn't hers."

Forte points out that half of the younger women come to WebMD because they've experienced some kind of "health episode," while the other half are interested in their own "performance" issues: "looking better, working better, working on their body."

"The fastest-growing segment," Forte says, "is the woman over 50 managing her health and that of her family."

Forte adds that, across the board, women are watching for video more, which allows them quick access to experts they wouldn't get to consult in person. And the "community" section of the site, where viewers can communicate with one another, has grown increasingly popular. "Women very much value the insight of another woman," even if they don't know her personally, Forte says.

The Boston Women's Health Book Collective, the folks responsible for 1970s groundbreaking women's health bible "Our Bodies, Ourselves," runs the site http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org, which attracts 80,000 visitors a month, according to site manager Kiki Zeldes. People visiting the site ("We assume they're women, but we can't really back that up with science," Zeldes says) gravitate toward sections on sexuality, contraception and relationships, Zeldes observes; a blog launched a year ago and written by a non-physician is one of the site's most popular features.

Arthur Schoenstadt, a physician who is formally launching http://www.eMedTV.com (featuring what he calls the largest library of health-education videos on the Web) two weeks from today, says women's ways of using Web sites have informed the design of his site, which he says has attracted 3 million visits since its soft launch a year ago.

"A lot come to eMedTV for our pregnancy information," Schoenstadt says. Women with kids, he says, are "looking for quick answers: 'How long will a cold last?' or 'When's it okay to send my kid back to school?' "


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