Here’s a question I received that I thought was worth a public answer:
How many people go online to seek a doctor’s opinion about something, such as on an “ask a doctor” site?
Pew Research has not asked a survey question that specifically measures that activity, but we have something pretty close, based on our September 2012 national phone survey:
8% of internet users say they have, in the past 12 months, posted a health-related question online or shared their own personal health experience online in any way.
- 40% say they posted comments or stories about personal health experiences
- 19% say they posted specific health questions
- 38% say they posted both
Also based on the small group — just 8% of internet users:
- 78% of those who posted a comment, story, or question about their health say that they did so to reach a general audience of friends or other internet users.
- 11% say they posted somewhere specifically to get feedback from a health professional.
- 4% say they posted for both a general and a professional audience.
- 5% say none of those choices fit.
I’m not going to do the math, but it’s clear that only a tiny group of U.S. adults has, in the past year, posted a question online for a doctor to answer. The more common activity, which isn’t surprising at all, is to post a question or story for peers, family, and friends to ponder. That’s the basic idea behind peer-to-peer healthcare.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Thing is, I wonder how responders considered the margins to this question. Take for example a blog post authored by a physician. If a commenter asks a question in the comments and a physician responds, the same process has occurred (ie “ask a doctor”) but may not be captured?
Check out this post on toddler sleep, for example. Over 180 comments (nearly 1/2 are responses authored by me in response to a case-specific question).
Does it count?
Susannah Fox says
That’s a great question! The challenge with phone surveys is that we don’t know what a respondent is thinking about, exactly, so we need to be cautious about interpreting the results. These results are just one indication of what the answer might be. Also, the data are not an indication of the value of any of the online interactions. Your post and the resulting discussion is a fantastic example of high-impact online interaction among experts (expert parents, expert MD).
That’s very interesting, Susannah.
Interestingly, I have a client who is a surgeon and is active on one of the “ask a doctor” sites and he gets several questions a week. Sometimes 1 or more a day. If a higher percentage of people used these sites there would be an amazing amount of questions to answer.
Susannah Fox says
Yes, we may be at the very beginning of something big or we may be seeing the first and last gasps of a model that never takes off. Again, these survey questions are just one indication of what might be going on, but worth consideration.
Susannah Fox says
Bryan Vartabedian wrote a reaction post over on 33charts.com: Do We Care What Doctors Think? – definitely worth a read, along with the comments.
And Charlie Smith asks on Twitter: “What’s preventing this?”
I’m reminded of a previous research finding which surprised people: Only 1 in 4 people looking online for health info check the source and date of every page they find. But then it was revealed by an HHS study that a tiny fraction of health websites (less than 5%) display those information quality indicators. In other words, maybe it’s a question of availability.
Or this data is a reflection of people’s offline health advice habits. Why should their online activity be different?
Again, I’m hoping our data can be an accurate mirror and/or a useful window into people’s lives. Please let me know how we can improve these questions or expand on this topic.
Charlie Smith says
Susannah, as you know, I’ve operated an online expert health information service for about the past 15 years and, although, it is has been somewhat of a struggle gaining a foothold (reference your #’s) patients appreciate and respond well when they realize the credentials of the online professionals can be trusted and acted upon. I wonder if not being able to easily discern this is the primary problem?
Jeff Livingston says
Very interesting. I wonder if this is because truely high functioning platforms giving patients direct access to physician answers have not been available until fairly recently. As physician adoption of these platforms evolves the consumer behavior may adapt.