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Interview: ReliefInsite Founder, Fred Eberlein Generation Now Marketing
Jun 22

pewSusannah Fox, of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, has released her latest research report, “The Social Life of Health Information.”  With a survey conducted in Spanish and English, and a sample size of 2,253 adults, the Pew report is the definitive guide to the prevalence and practices of digital health consumers, or “e-patients.”

Everyone Is An E-Patient (well almost)
Not surprising but reassuring to those focused on the e-patient movement, the survey found that 8 in 10 internet users look for health information online and that number continues to grow. The use of traditional information sources remains static and 86% of adults talk to a doctor about their health conditions. This just indicates that being an e-patient doesn’t mean you aren’t a also a patient who uses books, doctors, friends, or other influencers.  The Internet has reduced the friction associated with access to information and socialization, but doesn’t replace other sources.

Many Read; Few Contribute (and that’s quite alright)
The Pew report shows that e-patients are more passive than active. While 41% have read someone else’s comments or blog, only 5-6% are posting online. This is just an extreme Pareto principle at work and can be seen in online groups as well as offline groups. How many people at a conference raise their hands and ask questions? Probably 5 out of a 100. How many church members volunteer to collect money or greet parishioners or bring in flowers for Easter? Maybe 5 of a 100. I don’t think that number will change, and I think that’s just fine. If 5% of all people with a certain condition contribute, that’s a lot of content and good sample size that should accurately represent the whole.

Few e-Patients are Joiners (but what about serious chronic conditions?)
One of the apparent losers in this study is online social networks, which would include Facebook health groups, private networks like CML Earth, legacy community email lists like ACOR, etc. In fact only 6% of e-patients have started or joined a health-related group on a social networking site.

But what I’m curious about, and don’t think the survey queried, is what percent of e-patients with serious and/or chronic illnesses have joined an online group. The total population of e-patients of course includes mostly healthy adults who may be using the Internet to check out flu symptoms, diet pills, or what the procedure is like for a vasectomy. No need to join an online group for these issues. But what percent of people with cancer join a group? What about people with ALS? Or chronic depression? My guess is that the percentage of “joiners” in these groups would be much higher.

Online Health Info Is a Major Influencer (so shift your resources marketers)
Health marketers and communicators everywhere should note that 60% of e-patients say their health query online influenced their treatment decision and 38% said it influenced even whether they should see a doctor or not. Whether you’re trying to engage people on the topic of H1N1 flu, diabetes, insomnia, cancer or anything else, you need to dramatically shift your time, energy and money to the web.

This is Just the Beginning (buckle up)
I’ve always viewed us as being at the beginning of a movement; the beginning of a swelling wave. And trends in wireless adoption and inevitable impact of age will be accelerators to the e-patient movement. Quoting the report:

Indeed, those with mobile access to the internet are more likely than those who have tethered access to contribute their comments and reviews to the online conversation about health and health care. And mobile access is on the rise.

Adults between the ages of 18 to 49 are more likely than older adults to participate in social technologies related to health. As younger adults face more health care questions and challenges, they may turn to the tools they have sharpened in other contexts of their lives to gather and share health advice.

We are at a point where broadband and mobile web are becoming ubiquitous, digital immigrants are aging, and Web 2.0 technologies are being refined. The signs of the e-patient revolution abound.

Soon we will be immersed in the Web 3.0, personal genomics will yield personalized medicine and the gamer generation will see signs that they, too, are mortal. The adventure has just begun…


  • Susannah -Thanks for an interesting read. The data was enlightening. Making my way from traditional healthcare communications to online healthcare communications was a natural move. knowing the professional needs and culture of the physician and concerns of the patient is often lost on those that are trying to put the "web2.0 square peg" into the "healthcare marketing hole". This is a very complex area, especially when it comes to the well being of a patient (not sure I like "e-patient" ) and the healthcare professional. I'm not surprised by low acceptence of social media amongst patients and doctors alike) . Conversing about personal health issues is a private matter abd only work best in an environment shared by others with similar conditions. Advocacy forums are probably the best form of social media. I can't imagine a cancer patient "tweeting" about the radiation treatment they just had.

    Will our new communication technologies open new avenues of unchecked medical information.

    Thanks again for the information. I found it helpful.

    Will Murtough

  • Thanks for the detailed review! Please keep the comments and questions coming, particularly in regards to people living with disabilities or chronic disease - we held that data back for a report later this year.

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