Health Info & Social Networks: Some Unexpected News

Online Health Info Wordle
I’ve read quite a bit the last couple of years about battle for the search market: how Facebook is challenging Google in online search  because people want to search within their own social networks (e.g. Facebook vs. Google: It’s On in SearchHow Facebook Could Beat Google to Win the Net , and Wired’s Facebook vs. Google). So I was more than a little surprised to read some recent findings about health information search by the Pew Internet team in their new report, Health Online 2013. Beyond their main findings (59% of adults in the United States have looked online for health information in the past year), they found that people don’t start their search for health information with their social networks.

Where Do People Look Online for Health Information?

  • Not on Facebook or on another social network site. Only 1% reported starting in those places.
  • Most (77%) began with search engines like Google, Yahoo or Bing.
  • Specialized sites like WebMD were the starting place for 13%
  • Only a small percentage (2%) start at general reference sites like Wikipedia

At a time when we’re told how much people rely on their social networks for information, it’s striking that people don’t start their health information search in those places.

Why Don’t People Start with Their Social Networks?

One reason might be that people recognize the need for more specialized information, and that they don’t see their social networks possessing that information. Another could be that they feel some embarrassment about the potential medical issue and aren’t interested in sharing with others during their information-seeking. When I think about the clients that I’ve worked with over the years who were struggling with health problems, as well as my own struggles, I recall that there are few things more frustrating than trying to describe the experience of having a particular health condition to those who don’t have it. At best, one is left feeling like you’re speaking different languages. At the worst, one receives a barrage of unsolicited, often irrelevant advice.

But it’s Not That People Aren’t Social About Health

While people don’t start searching in their social networks, social is an important part of health online for some people. For example, the Pew Project reports that:

  • 25% report reading or watching other people’s experiences with a medical condition.
  • 16% looked for peers, that is, other who struggling with the same health problem.

So some people are looking to make social connections around health-related issues. They’re just looking to establish connections with people who would understand the particular challenges associated with a specific health condition.

The Pew data suggest that people don’t blindly reach out to their social networks for information on everything. Instead, they seem to be assessing what relevance their network might have for the task at hand. That’s really not that surprising when you think of it that way. It makes me wonder: what other topics would lead  people  to bypass their social  networks?

6 thoughts on “Health Info & Social Networks: Some Unexpected News

  1. The first thing I do when looking for information on an ailment or illness is an online symptom search. That way, I can actively avoid what non-professionals have to say about the medical condition. I prefer to get my medical information from medical professionals in the relevant field, so I trust sites such as those from recognised medical centres e.g. The Mayo Clinic. We have to be careful we don’t end up being cyberchondriacs and think that we have every and any rare disease just because someone else got it and blogged about it.


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