Online access a "trump card" for chronic disease patients

By Molly Merrill
09:48 AM
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A new report finds that adults living with chronic diseases are less likely to have access to the Internet, but are also more likely to use social media as a tool for coping with their condition.

The report, which was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the California HealthCare Foundation, found that only 62 percent of adults living with chronic disease go online, compared with 81 percent of adults who report no chronic diseases.

Lack of Internet access, not lack of interest in the topic, is the primary reason for the gap, according to the report. In fact, when demographic factors are controlled, Internet users living with chronic disease are slightly more likely than other Internet users to access health information online and user-generated content such as doctor and hospital reviews and blogs, online forums or discussions.

"We can now add chronic disease to the list of attributes which have an independent, negative effect on someone's likelihood to have Internet access, along with age, education, and income level," says Kristen Purcell, an associate director of the Pew Internet Project and a co-author of the report.

According to the report, more than any other group, people living with chronic disease remain strongly connected to offline sources of medical assistance and advice such as health professionals, friends, family and books. However, once they have Internet access, people living with chronic disease report significant benefits from the health resources found online.

"The deck is stacked against people living with chronic disease. They are disproportionately offline. They often have complicated health issues, not easily solved by the addition of even the best, most reliable, medical advice," says Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Internet Project and a co-author of the report. "But those who are online have a trump card. They have each other. Those who have access use the Internet like a secret weapon, unearthing and sharing nuggets of information found online."

Looking at the population as a whole, 51 percent of American adults living with chronic disease have looked online for any of the health topics included in the survey, such as information about a specific disease, a certain medical procedure, or health insurance. By comparison, 66 percent of adults who report no chronic conditions use the Internet to gather health information.

The report found that information about prescription or over-the-counter drugs is the topic that draws the most significant interest among Internet users living with chronic disease, compared with other Internet users.

The report, "Chronic Disease and the Internet," is based on a national telephone survey which included 2,253 adults, 36 percent of whom are living with chronic disease (heart conditions, lung conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer). Illustrative quotes from patients were gathered through online surveys conducted by PatientsLikeMe.com and HealthCentral.com.