A nationwide survey of US adults finds that 1 in 3 of Americans say they have used the internet to help them diagnose a medical condition, either for themselves or someone else. But, when asked who they turned to for help with a serious health issue, either online or offline, the majority said they turned to a doctor or other health professional.

These findings come from a telephone survey of over 3,000 adults living in the US. It was commissioned by the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, who published a report about it online on Tuesday.

The survey, which is part of Pew’s Internet & American Life Project, shows that 81% of Americans use the internet and 59% say last year they used it to find health information.

The report says these figures reflect the fact that in the US, the internet is now part of the stream of health information flowing into most people’s lives, alongside that which comes from talking to doctors, family members, friends, and other patients.

The survey finds that 35% of US adults say they have used the internet specifically to try and figure out if they or someone else has a medical condition.

And when these “online diagnosers” were asked who they turned to for information, care or support the last time they had a serious health problem, either online or offline:

  • 70% said they got it from a health professional,
  • 60% turned to family and friends, and
  • 24% said they got it from others with the same condition.

When the survey asked online diagnosers if the information they found online had led them to think they needed to see a doctor, 46% said yes, while 38% said they could take care of it themselves and 11% said it was a case of both or something in between.

The survey also asked online diagnosers about the accuracy of their internet-researched initial diagnosis. Over 40% said a medical professional confirmed it, while 35% said they didn’t seek a professional opinion.

Online diagnosers are more likely to be women than men, younger, white, live in more affluent households, and have a college degree.

The report concludes that even before the internet, people have always tried to answer questions about health at home and then decided whether to visit the doctor.

The internet is now a source of information that feeds into that decision, and clinicians remain a central source of help for serious health problems, and the care and conversation occurs mainly offline.

Support for the survey came from the California HealthCare Foundation.

In July 2012, researchers writing in the Journal of Consumer Research concluded using the internet to self-diagnose can be unwise because people tend to focus on symptoms rather than the risk of having the illness.

They suggested doctors are more likely to give objective assessments, because they also takes into account the risk of having a particular condition, rather than just matching the symptoms.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD