Health information remains high on the list of popular uses for the Internet

By Nancy Szokan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 12:01 AM

Seeking health information is the third-most-prevalent activity among American Internet users, according to a report being issued Feb. 1 by the Pew Internet Project. The only things more universal were exchanging e-mail and using search engines. (Of course, if someone uses Google to look up "shingles," there's obviously some overlap.) Eight out of 10 Internet users report going online for health information, even if it's only occasionally. "Health-care information is there when they need it," said Susannah Fox, associate director. People most commonly look up diseases, treatments and doctors, often on behalf of a child or other dependent.

Pew has been tracking Internet use in many fields - commerce, music, civic life - since 2000, and from the beginning, Fox said, "we were really struck by the depth of feeling that people expressed" about how the Internet helped them with health care. "In many ways, the Internet has become the de facto second opinion," she said. "People go online to prepare for a doctor's appointment - or recover from [it]."

The study also reflects the broader reality that Internet use is divided by race and class. Pew said that fewer than half of adults in the following groups use the Internet for health-care information: African Americans, Latinos, people 65 and older, disabled adults and those living in households with less than $30,000 annual income.

However, the report notes, some of those figures may change, because Latinos and African Americans have been shown to increasingly get information from smartphones and other mobile devices.

Rising use of mobile devices might also affect what most people look for online.

"Yahoo, for example, reports that 'pregnancy,' 'herpes' and 'STD' (sexually transmitted diseases) are among the top five searches performed on the mobile version of their site," the study says. "These topics do not appear at all among the top five health searches for the non-mobile versions of either Yahoo or Google."

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