Young College Grads Trust the Web for Health Information

September 29, 2014
Aimee Simone, Associate Editor

Age, education level, gender, and health status are associated with the use of anecdotal health information on the Internet.

Age, education level, gender, and health status are associated with the use of anecdotal health information on the Internet.

Younger college graduates are more likely to take health advice from untrusted Internet sources than older, less-educated patients, the results of a recent study suggest.

The study, which will be presented on October 28, 2014, at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, analyzed how patients use the Web to gather health care information. To do so, the researchers collected data from more than 3000 patients who participated in the 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Health Tracking Survey.

For the survey, patients were asked whether they turned to online rankings and reviews of hospitals, medical facilities, physicians, and other health care providers, and whether they consulted another patient’s online advice or anecdote about an experience with health and medical issues. Only those who indicated that they used the Internet occasionally or frequently were included in the study.

The survey results indicated that age, gender, level of education, and health states were all significantly associated with the use of online health information. Younger adults who attended at least 4 years of college were significantly more likely to search for online anecdotal information from forums, peer support groups, social media, and YouTube regarding a health condition or problem than older patients with a high school diploma or less education. In addition, women and patients who reported poorer levels of health were significantly more likely to reference the Internet.

The results from the study also found that patients who use public report information are highly likely to look for anecdotal information on the Web. Because information included in such reports may be dense and difficult to understand, patients might place more trust in anecdotal information online, the study authors suggested.

More research is needed to determine effective ways to educate patients on the accuracy and credibility of the anecdotal information they find on the Internet, the researchers concluded.

“Consumers may be relying less on health care providers, which creates the risk of receiving misleading, inaccurate, and untrustworthy information from unmoderated Internet sources,” said study author Kapil Chalil Madathil, PhD, in a press release. “It’s critical for them to develop skills for accessing, comprehending, and effectively using this information.”