The Continuing Evolution of Consumer Healthcare Information-Gathering Practices

health informationWith the interminable discussion and disagreement about the (so-called) Affordable Care Act we’ve been having lately, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the other important developments in health care and related behavioral trends.

One of them is how people are evolving in the way they obtain their health information.  A new consumer survey helps provide insights.

The survey, conducted among nearly 1,100 Americans age 18 or older by healthcare communications consulting firms Makovsky Health and Kelton Global, shows that U.S. adults visit a physician three times per year, on average.  That’s not much different from what previous research shows.

At the same time, however, American consumers now spend an average of over 50 hours per year researching health information on the Internet.  And they’re accessing such information all over the place – from health-oriented websites to social media. 

WebMD continues to have pride of place among healthcare online resources:

  • WebMD:  ~53% of adults access during the year
  • Wikipedia:  ~22%
  • Health magazine websites:  ~19%
  • Advocacy group websites:  ~16%
  • YouTube videos:  ~10%
  • Facebook:  ~10%
  • Blogs:  ~10%
  • Pharmaceutical company websites:  ~9%

Because health subject matters can be rather complicated or detailed, one would suspect that most people might do their research using a PC rather than devices with less screen-viewing or printing capabilities.  And this research bears that out:

  • ~83% use PCs the most to find health information online
  • ~11% use tablets the most
  • ~6% use smartphones the most

[However, tablet usage has grown from just 4% in the 2012 survey, while PCs have declined by a similar margin.]

The influence of consumers’ own doctors remains as strong as ever.  When asked what would motivate consumers to visit a pharmaceutical company’s website for information, the survey respondents cited physicians over any other motivational influence:

  • Physicians:  ~42% of respondents would be motivated by this source
  • News articles:  ~33% would be motivated
  • TV advertising:  ~25%
  • Drug discount card:  ~14%
  • Magazine advertising:  ~13%
  • Web/online advertising:  ~11%
  • Newspaper advertising:  ~9%
  • Radio advertising:  ~9%

… All of which leads one to wonder if most of the dollars being spent by pharma companies on radio, TV, magazine and web advertising are simply wasted. 

Really, this type of pharmaceutical advertising would appear to be “spray and pray” … on steroids.

Here’s a final piece of information from the Makovsky/Kelton survey that was quite revealing — perhaps even startling:  With all of the talk about the Affordable Care Act, as of the time of this survey a few months back, one-third of respondents reported that they had never spent any time researching the reforms and how they might affect them. 

… And another third indicated that they had spent less than one hour total researching the topic.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Power to the people: Online medical diagnosis is here to stay.

Online medical adviceWith the plethora of medical information websites now available, the results of the Pew Research Center’s recent survey on online medical diagnosis behaviors by “Jane and John Q. Public” comes as little surprise.

The research, part of Pew’s Internet & American Life Project, found that ~35% of U.S. adults surveyed reported that they’ve used the web to try to figure out what medical condition they may have … or have done so for a friend or family member.

Pew calls these people “online diagnosers.” Of these, a plurality (~46%) reported that their online research led them to conclude that they needed the attention of a medical professional.

And what about the accuracy of their initial diagnoses? Here’s what the Pew survey revealed:

  • A medical professional confirmed their diagnosis: ~48%
  • A medical professional did not agree … or offered a different opinion about the condition: ~18%
  • The medical professional’s view was inconclusive: ~1%
  • A medical professional or clinician wasn’t visited to get a professional opinion: ~35%

The Pew survey also found that certain sectors of the public more inclined tap online resources for diagnosing a medical condition. These segments include:

  • Women
  • Younger age groups (35 or lower)
  • Those with college or advanced degrees
  • Those part of households earning $75,000+ in annual income

Lest you think that the explosion of websites specializing in health information — including the ever-growing array of hospital websites – are the ones spurring the online activity, the Pew survey clearly finds that the standard search engines are where most of the action is happening:

  • Google, Bing or Yahoo-type search engine sites: ~77%
  • WebMD or other health information-type sites: ~13%
  • Wikipedia: ~2%
  • Facebook or other social-type sites: ~1%

Some hospitals are near-obsessive about their patient satisfaction ratings and achieving high quality scores from third-party ratings firms like Press-Ganey. But the Pew survey finds that a distinct minority of health consumers takes the time and trouble to consult such reporting: Only about one in five survey respondents reported consulting online reviews of pharmaceuticals, medical treatments, physicians, or hospitals.

And practically no one posts online reviews of their own about healthcare services or health providers.

Here’s one final piece of information from the Pew survey: Despite the fact that people who search for health information often do so out of a concern for their own health or the health of a family member, that doesn’t mean that they’re willing to pay for the privilege of accessing the information.

To begin with, only around one-quarter of the Pew respondents reported that they had been asked to pay to access the health-related information they wished to see online.

Their reaction when confronted with such a pay wall? Do everything possible to avoid shelling out any money:

  • ~83% attempted to find the information somewhere else without having to pay
  • ~13% gave up searching entirely
  • Just 2% decided to pay for the information

So even in circumstances as fundamental as those involving health, it would seem that information in cyberspace “wants to be free.”

Johnson & Johnson Raises the Alarm about Counterfeiting

Johnson & Johnson logoOne of the biggest benefits of the Internet has been the ability for consumers to research medical information for themselves. It’s not surprising that people would turn to the web for answers to health-related questions, particularly if they or a family member are suddenly faced with a serious health concern. And from WebMD to other sites, the web is full of valuable information that can increase someone’s understanding of a medical condition quickly.

Unfortunately, there’s a darker side to this, too. Medical product scammers and counterfeiters have found more than a few people online to be susceptible to their “cures.” They’ve surmised that it’s only natural for a person concerned about a medical condition or ailment to be interested in a cure – or at least to find a way to alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with it.

Because the web is global, there’s precious little any government or court jurisdiction can do to control the proliferation of counterfeit pharmaceuticals or other medical products. And the web is full of them – not simply bogus drugs but also counterfeit contact lenses, glucose strips, and a whole host of items let’s just refer to euphemistically as “virility and family planning products.”

But to do nothing isn’t a solution, either. Johnson & Johnson seems to feel this way, too, and is proposing a “Medical Device Product Protection Leadership Initiative” … and inviting other companies, including medical wholesalers, to join in the effort.

In addition, a new pharmaceutical industry initiative, dubbed “Rx-360“, is starting up. It’s focused on securing the integrity of supply chains that lead into manufacturing and packaging operations.

Will these initiatives work? Judging from the spotty success to date in curtailing the proliferation of counterfeit medical products being sold online, likely it’ll be only modestly effective at best. But since we’re dealing with potentially life-and-death matters here, any amount of increased effectiveness is highly welcome.