by Tom Flemming, MA, MLS, AHIP
McMaster University Health Sciences Library,Hamilton, Ontario
The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an agency that studies Internet use in the United States. Various Pew studies have reported on “the impact of the Internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care and civic/political life.” This project “aims to be an authoritative source for timely information on the Internet's growth and societal impact, through research that is scrupulously impartial.” 1 Two of their many reports available online are of particular interest in the context of consumer health on the Internet. The latter of the two—released in February 2001—documents the rapid rise in Internet use in the United States in the very recent past and details its demo graphics. 2 An earlier report—released at the end of November 2000—studies the way in which Americans use the Internet to access health information. 3 From these reports, we can learn a great deal about the enormous growth in overall Internet use; and we can also learn about the people who are seeking health information on the Internet and why they do so.
About 52 million American adults have used the Internet, according to the November 2000 study, to get health or medical information. Most of those who used the Internet for health purposes did so to find information or to research some health question on behalf of themselves or a family member. Many of these “health seekers” reported real concerns about their privacy and were reluctant to use some of the particular health applications (communication with doctors, purchase of health services or products, filing claims, and so on) that are available on many sites. Many also reported concerns about the quality of some of the information they were able to access. To gether, these studies make essential reading for anyone interested in the “online health care revolution.” They provide a useful starting point for this chapter on health information for the online consumer.
Health consumers have been going online in droves ever since the first health information became available on the Internet. Nobody has pinpointed that initial moment exactly, but the astonishing growth in health-related sites—Pew notes that there are more than 17,000—is the subject of much comment in the literature. Documentation of the early stages of this growth—prior to 1999—is available in the introduction to the report of the Science Panel on Interactive Communication and Health (SciPICH). 4 This report also lists the “functions” of interactive health communication technologies (one of which is the health care Web site) as they were prior to 1999:1) to relay information, 2) to enable informed decision making, 3) to promote healthy be-