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Majority of Americans Don't Seek Health Information

National Study Disputes Notion that Most Americans Rely on Internet for Health Information

News Releases
March 16, 2003

Alwyn Cassil: (202) 264-3484

ASHINGTON, D.C.— Contrary to popular belief that Americans avidly seek health information— especially on the Internet—more than six out of 10 American adults in 2001 sought no information about a health concern, according to a national study released today by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC).

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of American adults, or about 117 million people, failed to seek any health information from a source other than their doctor in the previous year, the study found, and only one in six consumers turned to the Internet for health information (16%, or 30 million adults).

As employers shift a greater share of rising health care costs to consumers and more responsibility for making choices about their care, the study raises serious questions about how ready Americans are to gather information about the cost and quality of care when deciding which caregiver to see or what treatment options to pursue—all hallmarks of the new consumer-driven movement in health care.

"The study indicates significant challenges lie ahead in educating consumers about the trade-offs among the cost, quality and accessibility of care," said Paul B. Ginsburg, Ph.D., president of HSC, a nonpartisan policy research organization funded exclusively by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A person’s education level is key to explaining who is more likely to seek health information: People with a college degree are twice as likely to seek health information as those without a high school diploma, the study found. The Internet gap is even wider—people with a postgraduate degree are more than seven times as likely to use the Internet to research a health concern as people who didn’t finish high school.

Generally, men are less likely than women, older people are less likely than younger ones and people with low incomes are less likely than higher-income people to seek health information. All of these differences, unlike education, are modest with one exception—the Internet gap between elderly Americans and younger ones is sizeable. Only 7.7 percent of people 65 and older used the Internet to find health information, compared with 19.3 percent of people aged 18 to 34.

"If today’s health care consumers are going to become empowered consumers, a tremendous amount of work needs to be done to develop credible and understandable information and then motivate people to use it," said HSC Health Researcher Ha T. Tu, M.P.A, who co-authored the study with HSC Senior Researcher J. Lee Hargraves, Ph.D.

While some consumers, such as the very healthy, may have no pressing need for health information, people with chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, have a greater stake in being well informed about their conditions. Yet, more than half of the 78 million adults living with chronic conditions sought no health information.

The study’s findings are detailed in an HSC Issue BriefSeeking Health Care Information: Most Consumers Still on the Sidelines. Based on results from HSC’s Community Tracking Study 2001 Household Survey, a nationally representative survey involving about 60,000 people in 33,000 families, key findings include:

  • Nearly one in four adults relied on books or magazines for information (23%, or 44 million adults, while one in five turned to friends or relatives for information (20 %, or 37 million adults).
  • Among the 72 million adults who sought health information in the previous year, only one in five mentioned the information to their doctors. Seventeen percent of information seekers had no doctor visits in the past year, and the remaining 63 percent visited their doctors but did not bring up outside sources of health information.
  • About 32 million people, or 17 percent of all adults, neither sought information nor saw a doctor in the past year, and 9 million adults had health problems—either reporting a chronic condition or fair or poor health status—yet did not see a doctor and sought no health information. Consumers who neither saw a doctor nor sought health information tend to have less education and lower incomes and are disproportionately uninsured, male and members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

"These hard-to-reach people will have a distinct disadvantage in a health care system that demands more consumer involvement," Tu said. "Just making information available and expecting people to seek it out will not serve the needs of most consumers."

Stakeholder Comments on the HSC Study

Ron Pollack, executive director, Families USA,
"As this study illustrates, most health care consumers could benefit from information, counseling and assistance through direct person-to-person contact. Consumer assistance offices can be critical to people as they struggle to navigate our health care system and make sound decisions about selecting a health insurance plan, doctors and appropriate treatment. The study’s findings underscore the need for additional resources to fund programs that assist consumers in making complex health care decisions, including health information and assistance programs for Medicare beneficiaries, programs that assist consumers with Medicaid and managed care ombudsman offices."

Karen Ignagni, president, American Association of Health Plans,
"Patients need more information about their health and health care, and our members are pioneering tools and techniques that will help them evaluate their choices and treatment options, and maintain their health."

Helen Darling, president, Washington Business Group on Health,
"This important study raises many challenges for employers who want to support their employees, retirees and family members with information and decision-support tools. But, it also helps to remind employers that relying on magazines, television and books to reach people is still very useful. We learn repeatedly that low tech in health care is often the most effective. It may also provide another lesson that our messages have to be culturally competent, based on what patients want in a form that they will use and be able to act on or internalize."

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The Center for Studying Health System Change is a nonpartisan policy research organization committed to providing objective and timely insights on the nation’s changing health system to help inform policy makers and contribute to better health care policy. HSC, based in Washington, D.C., is funded exclusively by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is affiliated with Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.


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