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Surprising Decline in Consumers Seeking Health Information

Sharp Fall in Print Media Use Accounts for Most of Overall Decline; Drop Most Pronounced for Older Americans, People with Chronic Conditions and People with Lower-Education Levels

News Release
Nov. 23, 2011

FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Alwyn Cassil (202) 264-3484 or [email protected]

WASHINGTON , DC—After a striking rise in the last decade, the proportion of American adults seeking information about a personal health concern from a source other than their doctor dropped to 50 percent in 2010, down from 56 percent in 2007, according to a national study released today by the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Although the proportion of consumers seeking health information fell between 2007 and 2010, there still has been a sizeable increase over the past decade, when 38 percent of adults in 2001 reported seeking health information, the study found.

The likelihood of people seeking information from the Internet and from friends and relatives changed little between 2007 and 2010, but their use of print sources—books, magazines and newspapers—dropped by nearly half to 18 percent.

“The drop in print media as a source of health information is partly explained by declining newspaper and magazine circulation  and declining book sales,” said HSC Senior Researcher Ha T. Tu, M.P.A., the study’s author. “Still, the magnitude of the decline in print media as a source of health information over just three years is striking.”

The reduced tendency to seek health information applied to consumers across nearly all demographic categories but was most pronounced for older Americans, people with chronic conditions and people with lower-education levels, according to findings from HSC’s 2010 Health Tracking Household Survey, a nationally representative survey with information on 17,000 people. Funded by RWJF, the survey for the first time included a cell phone sample to account for the growing number of households without a landline phone. Response rates were 45 percent for the landline sample and 29 percent for the cell phone sample.

Across all individual characteristics, education level remained the factor most strongly associated with consumers’ inclination to seek health information, the study found. Consumers who researched health concerns widely reported positive impacts: About three in five said the information affected their overall approach to maintaining their health, and a similar proportion said the information helped them to better understand how to treat an illness or condition.

The study’s findings are detailed in a new HSC Tracking Report—Surprising Decline in Consumers Seeking Health Information—available online at www.hschange.org. Other key findings include:

  • Elderly Americans—those aged 65 and older and the age group least inclined to seek health information despite experiencing the most health problems—experienced a substantial drop in overall information seeking (50% to 42%), largely the result of their use of print media being halved (35% to 18%). They did show significant growth in Internet use—though from a modest base (17% to 24%).
  • Use of the Internet for health information showed only a slight increase, from 31 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2010. During this period, other research shows residential high-speed- Internet access continued to gain traction—growing from 47 percent to 66 percent of households—yet Web-based health information seeking failed to keep pace.
  •  Information seeking rises sharply as the level of education increases. Once other personal characteristics are accounted for, people with a graduate education are twice as likely as those with no high school diploma to seek health information (67% vs. 33%)—a disparity that has grown since 2007.  The gap between the most- and least-educated groups is even wider for Internet use (52% vs. 11%).
  • As expected, the more chronic health conditions people have, the more likely they are to seek health information. Also, women are more likely than men, younger consumers are more likely than older consumers, and whites are more likely than African Americans and Hispanics to seek health information. These differences, unlike education, are mostly modest to moderate in magnitude, after accounting for other personal characteristics.

Besides seeking information for their own health concerns, nearly two in five adults reported seeking health information on behalf of another person in the previous 12 months.

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The Center for Studying Health System Change is a nonpartisan policy research organization committed to providing objective and timely research 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 affiliated with Mathematica Policy Research.

 

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